Volume 43 - Issue 3

The New Atheist Sledgehammer: Like Epistemological Air Boxing

By Ernie Laskaris


In one of the chief works produced by the New Atheists, Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion set out to reduce the existence of God to an “almost certain” impossibility. While his words are firm and belittling, however, Dawkins fails to cause any legitimate damage to the theistic worldview. This article identifies three reasons why the New Atheist sledgehammer has widely missed its target. First, Dawkins demonstrates a deficient understanding of the God he seeks to extinguish. Second, he is unable to account for certain concepts that he appeals to in his arguments (logical absolutes, the uniformity of nature, and moral absolutes). Third, he repeatedly violates the commitments of his naturalistic materialism, resorting to metaphysical speculation on multiple occasions.

Perhaps with greater zeal and militancy than the atheistic philosophers of the Enlightenment, the New Atheism has burdened Christians with a relentless demand for evidence in support of the existence of God. Political activist Dimitrios Roussopoulos summarizes this attitude well, “The burden of proof is on the believer to give us evidence for God’s existence, something to show that there is such a reality.”1 What is the epistemological framework underlying such a demand? It is peculiarly reminiscent of that old foe we know as “logical positivism,” a system of empiricism in which all knowledge claims are to be rejected as meaningless nonsense unless they are tautologous or empirically verifiable.2 In his Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume wrote:

When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume—of divinity or school of metaphysics, for instance—let us ask, does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quality or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.3

Of course, since the late 1960s, logical positivism has been emphatically deemed “as dead as a philosophical movement ever becomes.”4 It was the victim of its own sword, for this principle of empirical verifiability cannot itself be empirically verified. When interviewed on the subject in 1979, Alfred J. Ayer, one of the champions of logical positivism in the 1920s, noted that “the most important [defect] was that nearly all of it was false.”5 Why is it, then, that the New Atheism seems to be the modern-day reincarnation of the long dead logical positivism? Of course, while they do share a mutual rejection of all metaphysics, there are some key differences between the two.

The most significant of these differences is the New Atheism’s insistence on the scientific method as the only means by which to acquire authentic knowledge—an evolved form of logical positivism (pun intended) known as “scientism,” which can be considered the radical, fundamentalist wing of science.6 Under the umbrella of scientism are the branches of “materialism” and “naturalism,” which essentially claim that all things are matter and energy being acted upon by natural forces.7 This worldview is perhaps best expressed by American astronomer and cosmologist Carl Sagan, who wrote, “The cosmos is all there is, or ever was, or ever will be.”8 That is, the only true reality that exists is that which can be rationally experienced by the senses and empirically verified by the scientific method. This quote could practically be the Genesis 1:1 of the New Atheism.

1. The Dawkins Sledgehammer

Now, the champion of the New Atheism is undoubtedly the outspoken evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who would depart from his usual fields of ethology and biology in 2006 to launch perhaps one of the most sophisticated modern attacks against theism, The God Delusion. His goal? To reduce the existence of a supernatural Creator to an “almost certain” impossibility. In order to achieve this, Dawkins uses what Douglas Groothuis calls the “sledgehammer rhetoric,” a literary technique in which one presents their case against an opponent in the strongest possible language in order to belittle the opponent as having absolutely nothing but irrationality to offer.9 This is especially seen in the fourth chapter of the book, “Why There Almost Certainly is no God,” a classic example of New Atheist scientism. Dawkins’s argument from improbability, which he calls “The Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit,” is the major focus of this chapter, as well as the central argument of The God Delusion—considered to be his most comprehensive argument against theism.

In terms of structure, Dawkins has divided “The Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit” into three sections.

  1. An argument from complexity, that the designer must be more improbable than the design;
  2. An argument against and refutation of the indolent “god of the gaps” reasoning;
  3. An argument using the Anthropic Principle against the “divine knob-twiddler argument.”

The overarching problem of the chapter, however, is that Dawkins’s sledgehammer widely misses its target. It can be compared to a football player who believes to have successfully kicked a goal, except that it was not the right goal—it was a different goal, in a different stadium, on a different continent. To what can we attribute such inaccuracy?

The primary purpose of this paper is to analyze and expose the absurdity of New Atheist scientism by means of a critical response to Dawkins’s three main arguments mentioned above. In doing this, I will argue that Dawkins’s inaccuracy is fundamentally theological, stemming from his failure to understand the God that he so adamantly seeks to prove the non-existence of. That is, what Dawkins calls “the God Hypothesis” is not the God that Christians worship.

2. The Non-Transcendent “God” of Richard Dawkins

Dawkins defines the God Hypothesis in general terms: “There exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.”10 Remember, according to the naturalistic materialism of the New Atheists, nothing exists outside of the material universe. Thus, Dawkins argues that any creative intelligence that is sufficiently complex to be able to design anything can only exist as the end product of an extended, gradual process of Darwinian evolution.11 The underlying assumption of this argument is Darwin’s most fundamental premise, one on which his entire theory ultimately rises or falls, that “simple forms of life … gave rise to those more complex.”12

Dawkins recognizes that such a theory is counterintuitive, contradicting “one of the oldest ideas we have”—that a lesser thing must have been made by a greater. Commenting on this, fellow New Atheist Daniel Dennett points out, “You’ll never see a horse shoe making a blacksmith.”13 This, according to Dawkins, is what makes Darwin’s system of natural selection so revolutionary and consciousness-raising. With such a mechanistic explanation, Dawkins believes that the mysteries of the universe can be solved without requiring a supernatural Being or divine Mind—effectively rendering the God Hypothesis “unnecessary.”14

A brief pause is necessary here, for although this is arguably entirely false, the necessity of the God Hypothesis has no impact on whether or not it is true. The converted Christian recognizes that they did not arrive at the knowledge of God by concluding that theism is the best explanation of empirical data. Rather, we testify that this knowledge has been granted to us by God himself through his Gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation (Rom 1:16). Now, undoubtedly, Dawkins would scoff at such a notion, considering it to be “self-indulgent, thought-denying skyhookery.”15 However, this appeal to a revelational epistemology only becomes problematic when a strict materialistic epistemology is assumed. As John B. Howell notes, “Such an assumption creates a necessary and exclusive connection between explanatory power and truth which religious believers should not allow to go unquestioned.”16 God is explanatorily powerful, but this does not determine the truth of Christian belief. Rather, it serves to confirm the rationality of Christian belief, which is acquired through means that Dawkins fundamentally rejects. That the New Atheists would deem the Gospel of Jesus Christ “self-indulgent, thought-denying skyhookery,” however, should not surprise any Christian. As the apostle Paul writes, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God,” (1 Cor 1:18).

Returning to his argument, the problem that Dawkins takes on is the need to explain the statistical improbability of life in this universe. It was Fred Hoyle, an English astronomer, who came up with the “Boeing 747” illustration. Upon his conclusion that the probability of cellular life evolving on earth is approximately one-in-1040,000, he wrote, “The chance that higher life forms might have emerged in this way is comparable to the chance that a tornado sweeping through a junkyard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials therein.”17 Dawkins, adapting this illustration to his own purposes, argues that a designer must necessarily be more complex and improbable than the thing designed. The God Hypothesis, then, would not solve the problem of statistical improbability, for it would immediately raise questions regarding the improbability of the designer. He writes,

Seen clearly, intelligent design will turn out to be a redoubling of the problem. Once again, this is because the designer himself immediately raises the bigger problem of his own origin. An entity capable of intelligently designing something as improbable as a Dutchman’s Pipe (or a universe) would have to be even more improbable than a Dutchman’s Pipe. Far from terminating the vicious regress, God aggravates it with a vengeance.18

Thus, “God is the Ultimate Boeing 747.”19 This, however, is a clear case of deficient theology. For Dawkins, God must be some sort of natural entity whose existence requires an explanation, but this is not the same God that the Christian proclaims as the Creator of the heavens and the earth. In his review of The God Delusion, Thomas Nagel recognizes this as a category error.

But God, whatever he may be, is not a complex physical inhabitant of the natural world. The explanation of his existence as a [series] of atoms is not a possibility for which we must find an alternative, because that is not what anybody means by God. If the God Hypothesis makes sense at all, it offers a different kind of explanation from those of physical science.20

Dawkins’s rejection of transcendence, as well as any epistemology other than his scientism, should reveal to the reader that he is no theologian or philosopher. If the “Dawkins Sledgehammer” was intended to take a swing at the transcendent God of the biblical witness, it has not even come close to hitting its target. Perhaps Dawkins is the victim of a “god delusion” of his own.

3. The “God of the Gaps” Apologetic

Something that appears to really grind the proverbial gears of Richard Dawkins is when a gap in scientific knowledge is used “by default” as evidence for God’s existence. Satirically putting on the voice of a theist, Dawkins illustrates his version of the thought process behind this reasoning.

If you don’t understand how something works, never mind; just give up and say God did it. You don’t know how the nerve impulse works? Good! You don’t understand how memories are laid down in the brain? Excellent! Is photosynthesis a bafflingly complex process? Wonderful! Please don’t go to work on the problem, just give up, and appeal to God. Dear scientist, don’t work on your mysteries. Bring us your mysteries, for we can use them. Don’t squander precious ignorance by researching it away. We need those glorious gaps as a last refuge for God.21

Now, most Christians do not espouse this “god of the gaps” reasoning. Historically, however, it has been seen particularly in ancient cultures, where something like a week-long heatwave would be attributed to the vengeful wrath of some solar deity (such as Ra, the ancient Egyptian sun god). The issue with this methodology (if we could so call it) is that, as science advances, the gaps shrink.

  1. If a gap in scientific understanding is found, it is attributed to the work of a deity;
  2. Over time, science may discover a naturalistic explanation that fills the gap;
  3. As a result, the necessity of the deity is reduced, and possibly even eliminated.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran theologian, expressed the shortcomings of this reasoning in one of his letters written while he was imprisoned for his involvement in an elaborate plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler (irrelevant to the present argument, but an admirable reason to be imprisoned).

It has again brought home to me quite clearly how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back—and that is bound to be the case—then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.22

Although far from the majority, there are certainly proponents of the “god of the gaps” reasoning out there, in which case, it can be conceded that Dawkins’s frustration toward it is somewhat merited. From a scientific perspective, the “god of the gaps” is lazy and ignorant thinking that inhibits scientific progress. From a Christian perspective, on the other hand, it is simply a departure from the God of Scripture. The Bible bears witness to a rational, logical, and orderly Creator. In a universe governed by such a God, a rational, logical cosmos operating under orderly natural law is to be expected.23 The fact that God designs and causes an event or phenomena is not contingent upon the inability of science to explain it. Even when there is an empirically verifiable naturalistic explanation, it does not eliminate God as the cause.

The problem for Dawkins, however, is the already mentioned issues raised by attributing the cause of the universe to God. Rather than solving the improbability problem, the explanation of a supernatural designer does not actually explain anything at all because, according to Dawkins, we are left without an explanation for that designer himself—as fellow New Atheist Sam Harris has written, “The notion of a Creator poses an immediate problem of an infinite regress.”24

Here, the New Atheists fail what Peter Lipton calls the why-regress test. He writes, “Whatever answer someone gives to a why-question, it is almost always possible sensibly to ask why the explanation itself is so. Thus, there is a potential regress of explanations.”25 In other words, if an explanation is required for an explanation, it necessarily leads to an infinite regress—X1 is explained by X2, which is explained by X3, which is explained by X4, and so on to infinity.

Now, Dawkins asserts that natural selection is the best way to explain the complexity of life as we know it—a method known as “inference to the best explanation,” where the best of a list of candidate explanations is probably the correct one.26 However, Dawkins is inconsistent in his application of this principle. According to most philosophers of science, the best explanation does not itself require an explanation.27 That is, in order to recognize that X2 is the best explanation for X1, X2 does not itself require an explanation. Thus, if God’s existence requires an explanation (the best explanation in the theist’s mind), the same must be true for the theory of natural selection.

4. The Anthropic Principle: Who Created Natural Selection?

It appears that Dawkins recognizes a gap exists between natural selection and the origin of life. He notes that, “The root of evolution in non-biological chemistry somehow seems to present a bigger gap than any particular transition during subsequent evolution.”28 He also correctly recognizes that the universe appears to have been finely tuned for life to actually exist—“Physicists have calculated that, if the laws and constants of physics had been even slightly different, the universe would have developed in such a way that life would have been impossible.”29 Now, the Christian attributes this complexity to the intelligent design of a transcendent intelligent Being. As it is written in the Psalms, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps 19:1).

As an alternative to intelligent design, Dawkins proposes the Anthropic Principle, which states that, despite the statistical improbability of a universe with the precise conditions for life and subsequent natural selection to occur, it must exist. Why? Because “here we are thinking about it.”30

  1. If a life-permitting universe is impossible, observance of it is necessarily impossible.
  2. Observance of this life-permitting universe is possible.
  3. Therefore, this life-permitting universe is necessarily possible.

If you think it seems like he is dancing around the issue, you are not the only one—but we will allow it for now. In an effort to explain the improbability of an origin of life that brings forth the necessary preconditions for natural selection to begin to function, Dawkins suggests the following.

  1. There are a billion billion available planets in the universe (a conservative estimate).
  2. Suppose life was so improbable that it occurred on only one in a billion planets.
  3. Although absurdly improbable, life will still have occurred on a billion planets.
  4. According to the Anthropic Principle, the earth must be one of those billion.31

Not only does this not explain the origin of life at all, but it fails to do any damage to the theory of intelligent design. It makes me wonder how Dawkins would explain the origin of a slice of strawberry shortcake. “This cake must exist, because here I am holding it in my hands right now.”

Thus, the problem of the improbability of the origin of life remains, and natural selection cannot be the answer.32 As he himself writes, “The origin of life was the chemical event, or series of events, whereby the vital conditions for natural selection first came about.”33 In other words, natural selection is contingent, and therefore, if it is true, it must have a first cause.

In search for this first cause, Dawkins departs from his own scientism and naturalistic materialism and resorts to that which he fundamentally rejects—metaphysical speculation. Now, as of early 2018, life on the earth is the only known existence of life in the universe, and according to NASA, there is no observable evidence of any other planetary opportunity for life to exist.34 Dawkins, however, insists that this is a reasonable conclusion, appealing to something that may surprise you.

We can deal with the unique origin of life by postulating a very large number of planetary opportunities. Once that initial stroke of luck has been granted—and the Anthropic Principle most decisively grants it to us—natural selection takes over…. It needs some luck to get started, and the billions of planets Anthropic Principle grants it that luck.35

I must highlight that just prior to this appeal to luck, Dawkins boldly claims to be filling the origin of life gap with “statistically informed science.”36 If that’s not self-contradictory enough, let me also highlight that Dawkins is here claiming that natural selection needs chance in order to begin its operation, when earlier in this chapter, he emphatically states that natural selection is the alternative to chance! Arguing against a book published by the Watch Tower Society, the publishing arm of the Jehovah’s Witnesses (perhaps a deliberate decision to target a theologically weak foe), he writes, “The authors omit all mention of the real alternative [to chance], natural selection, either because they genuinely don’t understand it or because they don’t want to.”37 Again, he writes, “Intelligent design is not the proper alternative to chance. Natural selection is not only a parsimonious, plausible, and elegant solution, it is the only workable alternative to chance that has ever been suggested.”38 All this just prior to conceding that natural selection depends on chance. In this case, the great Richard Dawkins is guilty of being inconsistent and self-contradictory, either because he genuinely doesn’t understand his own argument, or because he doesn’t want to.

5. One Giant Metaphysical Leap for Richard Dawkins

In a final attempt to account for the apparent fine tuning of the universe, Dawkins proposes the metaphysical theory of the “multiverse”—the idea that there are an infinite number of universes, each with different sets of physical laws and constants. In the context of this, the existence of at least one life-permitting universe is a certainty.39 According to the Anthropic Principle, humanity must be in one of these universes that allow for life to occur and eventually evolve under the operation of natural selection. It is tempting to make a point here that perhaps more faith is required to believe in the multiverse than in an intelligent Creator, but Dawkins anticipates this.

The key difference between the genuinely extravagant God hypothesis and the apparently extravagant multiverse hypothesis is one of statistical improbability. The multiverse, for all that it is extravagant, is simple. God, or any intelligent, decision taking, calculating agent, would have to be highly improbable in the very same statistical sense as the entities he is supposed to explain.40

It must first be noted that the multiverse theory itself does not rule out an intelligent Creator. Robin Collins, for example, considers the multiverse as evidence of God’s “infinite creativity and ingenuity.”41 Theoretically speaking, God is able to create as many unique universes as he pleases. For what purpose, we can only speculate. John Turl makes an eschatological suggestion, noting that, even though inaccessible in the present age, these infinite number of universes that make up the multiverse might become accessible and useful when all things are made new (Rev 21:5).42 Speculation aside, however, it can be reasonably demonstrated that the “multiverse or God” is a false dichotomy. One does not necessarily cancel out the other.

A second issue here is, once again, Dawkins’s departure from his own naturalistic materialism. The New Atheists speak with deceptive eloquence on the subject, blurring the line between scientific speculation and pure speculation, but the multiverse theory is well beyond observational science. Professor John Polkinghorne, a renowned theoretical physicist, writes, “Let us recognize these speculations [regarding the multiverse] for what they are. They are not physics, but in the strictest sense, metaphysics. There is no purely scientific reason to believe in an ensemble of universes.”43 As a hypothesis, the multiverse is not testable or falsifiable, for it is not able to be subject to repeatable experimentation and observation. Therefore, the multiverse should be treated only as a metaphysical theory that, despite masquerading as “science,” is not actually a scientific hypothesis.

6. Dawkins’s Violation of Naturalistic Materialism

Considering the overall inconsistency of The God Delusion, I thought a final section dedicated to Dawkins’s unfaithfulness to his own worldview would be appropriate. As we have seen, his main arguments from improbability are built on a naturalistic perversion of God, reducing him to a natural entity confined to the physical, observable universe. Of course, the metaphysical assumption that there is no substance outside of matter is nothing new (just ask Alfred J. Ayer). However, Dawkins gives no argument for this assumption. Rather, he presents naturalistic materialism as an obvious, undeniable truth that is devastating to the Christian worldview. To accept this assumption as true is certainly to forfeit the argument, for Christ himself said, “God is spirit” (John 4:24), but for what reason should the Christian theist accept this naturalistic, materialistic view of reality?

I would first assert that Dawkins himself, despite his appeals to the contrary, frequently contradicts his own metaphysical assumptions. To provide an exhaustive list of each time he does this in his writing should not be something that anyone has the time to do (I dare someone to try), but for the purposes of this paper, I will provide a few examples from The God Delusion.

6.1. Logical Absolutes

On numerous occasions, Dawkins makes implicit appeals to the laws of logic. These laws are abstract by nature—that is, they are independent of time, space, and the physical properties of the universe. Thus, if Dawkins’s naturalistic materialism is correct, they cannot exist. Yet, he writes,

And some scientists and other intellectuals are convinced … that the question of God’s existence belongs in the forever inaccessible PAP (Permanent Agnosticism in Principle) category. From this … they often make the illogical deduction that the hypothesis of God’s existence, and the hypothesis of his non-existence, have exactly equal probability of being right. The view that I shall defend is very different—agnosticism about the existence of God belongs firmly in the temporary or TAP (Temporary Agnosticism in Principle) category. Either he exists, or he doesn’t.44

In this short section, under the subheading “The Poverty of Agnosticism,” Dawkins has displayed awareness of and belief in all three of the laws of logic. He identifies the two hypotheses regarding the existence of God as distinct theories (law of identity); he acknowledges that it would be a contradiction to claim that God simultaneously does and does not exist (law of non-contradiction); and he explicitly states that only one of the contradictory hypotheses can be true (law of excluded middle).45

The problem, of course, is that Dawkins cannot account for the existence of these laws without betraying his epistemological framework. He cannot see, hear, feel, smell, or taste them, and yet he operates under the assumption that they exist, violating his materialistic commitment to the belief that there is no substance outside of physical matter and energy. Ironically, he condemns those agnostic scientists and intellectuals for being “illogical.” Is it not illogical to deem something “illogical” when your worldview is unable to provide the necessary preconditions for the existence of the laws of logic? Is he not the one guilty of being illogical?

6.2. The Uniformity of Nature

A second self-contradiction that permeates through the entire book is Dawkins’s insistence on the scientific method as the only way to obtain certainty in knowledge. If a question does not have a scientific answer, it is not a meaningful question. Concerning theological enquiry, he writes,

Did Jesus have a human father, or was his mother a virgin at the time of his birth? … This is still a strictly scientific question with a definite answer in principle—yes or no…. There is an answer to every such question … and it is a strictly scientific answer. The methods we should use to settle the matter, in the unlikely event that relevant evidence ever became available, would be purely and entirely scientific methods.46

How does insisting on the scientific method contradict scientism? To put it simply, there are elements of the scientific method that are based on certain presuppositions that are not, and cannot be, justified by the scientific method. As an example, we will consider the “uniformity of nature.”

It was Charlie D. Broad who famously said, “Induction is the glory of science and the scandal of philosophy.”47 This was his response to the “Problem of Induction,” an issue most closely associated with David Hume. The principle of induction is fundamentally based on the uniformity of nature—one is able to draw certain conclusions about the future by inference to the uniformities observed in the past. The issue, of course, is accounting for such uniformity. How can one justify their belief that the future will indeed be like the past? Hume writes,

When it is asked, “What is the nature of all our reasonings concerning matter of fact?” The proper answer seems to be that they were founded on the relation of cause and effect. When again it is asked, “What is the foundation of all our reasonings and conclusions concerning that relation?” It may be replied in one word, “Experience.”48

The conclusion here is that one can know that the future will be like the past because it has always been that way. That is, the sun will certainly rise tomorrow morning because it was observed to have risen on every previous morning. As he continues, however, Hume rejects this conclusion.

But if we still carry on, and ask, “What is the foundation of all conclusions from experience?” This implies a new question, which may be of more difficult solution…. There is required a medium which may enable the mind to draw such an inference, if indeed it be drawn by reasoning and argument. What that medium is, I must confess, passes my comprehension; and it is incumbent on those to produce it, who assert that it really exists, and is the origin of all our conclusions concerning matter of fact.49

Essentially, Hume’s problem is that one must justify their belief in the principle of induction without appealing to the principle of induction. As with the laws of logic, however, the naturalistic materialist is unable to provide a rational justification for nature’s uniformity, and again, can only assume it to be true. Just how devastating this is to the New Atheism cannot be understated, for while all of general human experience indeed assumes the uniformity of nature, the scientific method depends on the uniformity of nature. As renowned atheistic philosopher Bertrand Russell writes,

The general principles of science, such as the belief in the reign of law, and the belief that every event must have a cause, are as completely dependent upon the inductive principle as are the beliefs of daily life. All such general principles are believed because mankind has found innumerable instances of their truth and no instances of their falsehood. But this affords no evidence for their truth in the future, unless the inductive principle is assumed. Thus, all knowledge … is based upon a belief which experience can neither confirm nor confute, yet which, at least in its more concrete applications, appears to be as firmly rooted in us as many of the facts of experience.50

Consequently, the scientific commitment to the uniformity of nature on the part of the atheist is not as much scientific as it is an intrinsically religious-type faith. Can a Christian account for the uniformity of nature? Absolutely! As the author to the Hebrews writes, the eternal Son of God is φέρων the universe by the word of his power (Heb 1:3)—the present active participle implying present, continuous action. That is, the universe is currently, at this very moment, being upheld, sustained, and carried along to its appointed end by the very same orderly God who has fixed the order of the heavens and set the course of all things from eternity past (Isa 46:10; Jer 31:35). In a universe governed by such a God, uniformity of nature is to be expected, and as a result of this expectation, the scientific method and the scientific enterprise are both possible and valuable.

6.3. Moral Absolutes

Finally, but certainly not exhaustively, some attention must be given to the issue of morality, without which, a critique of Richard Dawkins and the New Atheism would be incomplete. Why do I say that? When it comes to morality, Dawkins is absolutely perplexing (to say the least). In his work River Out of Eden, Dawkins provides an honest atheistic answer to the “problem of evil.”

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.51

I call this an “honest answer” because, if the naturalistic materialist worldview is assumed, this is the inescapable conclusion—moral nihilism, the belief that moral values do not exist.52 In the words of the great novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, if God does not exist, “everything is permitted.”53

The problem is that, despite his crystal-clear rejection of moral values, The God Delusion is absolutely congested with moral indignation. This is perhaps most obviously displayed in the seventh chapter, “The ‘Good’ Book and the Changing Moral Zeitgeist,” in which Dawkins systematically traverses the Bible in search of “the sins of Scripture.” Take note of the adjectives he uses for the following examples. Are they consistent with his “nothing but blind, pitiless indifference” view of morality?

  1. The Genesis account of the Great Flood is “appalling.”54
  2. Abraham bringing Isaac as an offering to God is a “disgraceful story … of child abuse.”55
  3. God’s punishment of idolaters is due to his “maniacal jealously against alternative gods.”56
  4. The conquest of Jericho is “morally indistinguishable from Hitler’s invasion of Poland.”57
  5. Execution for sabbath-breaking is the Law of “an evil monster.”58
  6. The foreordination of Judas’s betrayal of Jesus is “unfair.”59
  7. The doctrine of the Atonement is “vicious, sadomasochistic, and repellent.”60

Much can be said, and indeed has already been said, regarding Dawkins’s exegetical failures in this chapter. Theologian Owen C. Thomas, for example, writes that “his understanding of Christianity is massively uninformed and amounts to a caricature consisting of its most fundamentalist and obscurantist forms.”61 For the purposes of this paper, however, my goal is not to provide sound biblical exegesis to counter Dawkins’s accusations. Rather, I seek to show that, if we were to assume Dawkins’s worldview of “blind, pitiless indifference,” he has no reason and no authority to support his moral indignation—unless, of course, he borrows from the Christian worldview.

To ensure clarity, let me briefly state that the argument is not that the atheist cannot formulate a system of ethics without reference to God, nor is it that the atheist cannot recognize objective moral values. The argument, as stated by Peter S. Williams, is that, “although the non-theist can do the right thing because they know what the objectively right thing to do is, their worldview can’t cogently provide an adequate ontological account of the objective moral values they know and obey.”62

Throughout the rest of this seventh chapter, Dawkins promotes the common modern-day idea of ethical relativism, or what he calls the “changing moral Zeitgeist,” where morality is defined as subjective judgments that are contingent and revisable according to the social conscience of any given historical period. In one of the most ironic statements of the entire book, Dawkins writes, “It is a commonplace that good historians don’t judge statements from past times by the standards of their own.”63 Considering he has just done this, I would suppose that Dawkins has failed his own test here—but something must be said about the fact that, despite his insistence on a changing moral Zeitgeist, Dawkins does seem to make objective statements about morality. That is, there are certain moral values that he would consider to be valid and binding, regardless of whether people agree with him or not. Using the Holocaust as an example, William Lane Craig writes,

To say, for example, that the Holocaust was objectively wrong is to say that it was wrong even though the Nazis who carried it out thought that it was right, and that it would still have been wrong even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in exterminating or brain-washing everyone who disagreed with them.64

Would Dawkins agree that the Holocaust was objectively wrong? Apparently so, for he emphatically deems Hitler a “spectacularly evil” man, as the majority of the world would (hopefully) agree.65

If we accept Dawkins’s metaphysical assumptions, however, then how can anyone deem anything to be spectacularly evil? What even is evil? Here, Dawkins blatantly shows that his moral outcries are inconsistent with the worldview on which he stands, which views Hitler and the Holocaust, not as “spectacularly evil,” but as “blind, pitiless indifference.” As for the many examples given from the Scriptures (with no regard for proper exegesis), Dawkins’s denial of objective moral value renders his moral indignation against Christianity (and religion in general), a characteristic of all the New Atheists, both self-contradictory in principle and toothless in practice.66

7. Conclusion: Twelve Years Later

Now, why add to the already impressive list of critiques against The God Delusion twelve years after it was originally published? Set to premier at the 2018 Chorlton Arts Festival, The God Delusion has been adapted into a large-scale stage production. Commenting on this, Dawkins said, “I’m thrilled to see The God Delusion come to life on stage for the first time and for the message of the book to be given a new lease of life in this exciting way.” This paper can thus be considered an anticipatory critique of the book for the new wave of readers it will garner as a result of this production.

As has been discussed, The God Delusion fails to cause any real damage to the Christian worldview; attacking a deity that is not the transcendent God that the Christian worships. Dawkins’s naturalistic materialism is repeatedly betrayed by his own violations of it, as he is forced to resort to metaphysical speculation to account for the origin of life, as well as borrowing from the theistic worldview on numerous occasions to justify what naturalistic materialism simply cannot account for. What we see in The God Delusion is a militant New Atheist, having no “sledgehammer” of his own, needing to borrow one from the rival he seeks to destroy. In many ways, the New Atheism is similar to logical positivism—it is as dead as an epistemological framework ever becomes. Unlike logical positivism, however, the New Atheism just doesn’t have the courtesy to lay down.

[1] Dimitrios Roussopoulos, Faith in Faithlessness: An Anthology of Atheism (Montreal: Black Rose, 2008), 222.

[2] Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 429.

[3] David Hume, Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Charles W. Hendel (New York: Liberal Arts, 1955), 173.

[4] John Passmore, “Logical Positivism,” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. V, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: MacMillan, 1967), 56.

[5] Oswald Hanfling, “Logical Positivism,” in Routledge History of Philosophy, Vol. IX: Philosophy of Science, Logic, and Mathematics in the Twentieth Century, ed. S. G. Shankar (London: Routledge, 2003), 194.

[6] Rustum Roy, “Scientism and Technology as Religions,” Zygon 40 (2004): 836.

[7] Robert C. Newman, “Scientific Problems for Scientism,” Presb 21 (1995): 73.

[8] Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York: Random House, 1980), 4.

[9] Douglas Groothuis, “The God Delusion,” Christian Research Journal 30.6 (2007): 1.

[10] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Bantam, 2006), 31.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Peter Haugen, Biology: Decade by Decade (New York: Infobase, 2007), 58.

[13] Cited by Dawkins, The God Delusion, 117.

[14] Ibid., 46.

[15] Ibid., 155.

[16] John B. Howell, “Should We Fear That We Are Deluded?” SwJT 54 (2011): 34.

[17] Fred Hoyle, The Intelligent Universe (Austin: Holt Rinehart, 1983), 17.

[18] Dawkins, The God Delusion, 120.

[19] Ibid., 114.

[20] Thomas Nagel, “The Fear of Religion,” The New Republic, 23 October 2006, 26.

[21] Dawkins, The God Delusion, 132.

[22] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (New York: Macmillan, 1979), 311.

[23] Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 147.

[24] Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (London: Bantam, 2007), 73.

[25] Peter Lipton, “What Good is an Explanation,” in Explanation: Theoretical Approaches and Applications, ed. Giora Hon (Haifa, Israel: University of Haifa, 2001), 44.

[26] Alexander R. Pruss, “The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument,” in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, ed. William L. Craig and J. P. Moreland (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2012), 30.

[27] J. L. Pollock, Contemporary Theories of Knowledge (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999), 41.

[28] Dawkins, The God Delusion, 135.

[29] Ibid., 141.

[30] Ibid., 136.

[31] Ibid., 137–38.

[32] Nagel, The Fear of Religion, 28.

[33] Dawkins, The God Delusion, 137.

[34] Neil deGrasse Tyson, “The Search for Life in the Universe,” NASA Astrobiology, 30 June 2003,

[35] Dawkins, The God Delusion, 140–41, emphasis added.

[36] Ibid., 139.

[37] Ibid., 120.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Graham Gould, “God, the Multiverse, and Everything: Modern Cosmology and the Argument from Design,” JTS 57 (2006): 406.

[40] Dawkins, The God Delusion, 147.

[41] Robin Collins, “The Multiverse Hypothesis: A Theistic Perspective,” in Universe or Multiverse?, ed. Bernard Carr (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 461.

[42] John Turl, “Do Many Worlds Make Light Work?” Science & Christian Belief 24 (2012): 63.

[43] Cited by John C. Lennox, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2007), 73.

[44] Dawkins, The God Delusion, 48.

[45] George J. Hayward, Principles of Logic (London: Paternoster, 1916), 67–68.

[46] Dawkins, The God Delusion, 59.

[47] Merrilee H. Salmon, Introduction to the Philosophy of Science (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999), 58.

[48] Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 18.

[49] Ibid., 19–20.

[50] Bertrand Russell, The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell, ed. R. E. Egner (London: Routledge, 2009), 126.

[51] Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1995), 132–33, emphasis added.

[52] Steven Law, “Humanism,” in The Oxford Handbook of Atheism, ed. Stephen Bullivant and Michael Ruse (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 270.

[53] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, repr. ed. (New York: Random House, 2003), 351.

[54] Dawkins, The God Delusion, 238.

[55] Ibid., 242.

[56] Ibid., 246.

[57] Ibid., 247.

[58] Ibid., 248.

[59] Ibid., 252.

[60] Ibid., 253.

[61] Owen C. Thomas, “The Atheist Surge: Faith in Science, Secularism, and Atheism,” Theology and Science 8.2 (2010): 196.

[62] Peter S. Williams, C. S. Lewis vs. the New Atheists (London: Paternoster, 2013), 151.

[63] Dawkins, The God Delusion, 266.

[64] William L. Craig, God? A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 17.

[65] Dawkins, The God Delusion, 272.

[66] Williams, C. S. Lewis vs. the New Atheists, 152.

Ernie Laskaris

Ernie Laskaris is preparing for graduate studies at Melbourne School of Theology in Melbourne, Australia.

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