Richard Dawkins is a popular British biologist, famous for his advocacy of evolution and atheism. His previous works, such as The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker, have focused on evolution. But in his new popular work, The God Delusion, Dawkins focuses on a different topic.
The God Delusion actually tries to accomplish three goals: (1) demonstrate that God does not (or, at least, very probably does not) exist, (2) construct an evolutionary theory for the development of religion and morality, and (3) show that religion is and has been harmful and the world would be better off without it. Needless to say, this is an ambitious project, and one which Dawkins fails to satisfy.
Chapters 2-4 address the existence of God. In the second chapter, Dawkins clarifies “The God Hypothesis,” claiming that it is a scientific hypothesis that can and should be tested. In chapter 3, Dawkins attempts to disprove arguments for God’s existence. Unfortunately, the chapter fails to address the most recent, relevant arguments. Although he spends a couple pages trying to refute Aquinas’ Five Ways, he gives no airtime to the Kalam Cosmological Argument, which has recently become quite popular and which I think is the single best argument for God’s existence. He also discusses the ontological argument (though he devotes more space to insulting it than refuting it). And although I am not a big proponent of the ontological argument, once again Dawkins fails the test of relevancy, as he does not discuss the much more recent version of the argument proposed by Alvin Plantinga (see here for a brief exposure to different forms of the ontological argument). The chapter is very short, and deals primarily with positively bad arguments such as The Argument from Religiously Admired Scientists. He also devotes a few pages to the argument from scripture, which consists of his tragically insufficient attempt to refute the Bible. Dawkins is no historian or textual critic, but he confidently asserts things without so much as a citation. In sum, Dawkins fails to deal with the most relevant arguments for God’s existence, so even if everything written in the third chapter were true, the evidence for God’s existence would still be very strong.
The fourth chapter deals with another extremely powerful argument for God’s existence- the argument from design. However, even if one grants evolution, we are still left wondering how life began and how the universe (finely tuned for life) began. Dawkins’ response to the question of life’s origin is curious. He claims that there might be billions and billions of planets in the universe, and so it is not that unlikely that at least one of them has life. However, this logic is flawed. Since Dawkins gives no estimate of the probability of life’s abiogenesis by natural means, increasing the number of potential planets to 100 billion does not clearly help very much. If the odds of life originating are 1,000,000 trillion to one, then the fact that there are “only” 100 billion hospitable planets will not help the case for atheism much. Furthermore, Dawkins seems to assume that there are billions upon billions of life-hospitable planets in the universe. This hypothesis is far from proven, and many scientists have argued that, to the contrary, hospitable planets are extraordinarily rare. In essence, Dawkins’ reply to the problem of abiogenesis is to increase the probabilistic resources in an ad hoc fashion, and then merely assume that it is probable.
His response to the bigger question of why our universe is fine tuned for life is even weaker. He speculates that there “might be” multiple universes, mentioning Lee Smolin’s hypothesis of black hole universe creation. Dawkins hopes that a multi-verse theory like Smolin’s may explain the existence of our own fine-tuned universe by means of some sort of natural selection process. But Dawkins provides no evidence for a multi-verse, much less one with selecting properties. He merely hopes that Darwinian “consciousness-raising” will cause us to think that there is one. Dawkins’ response to the teleological argument resorts to wishful thinking, not sound science or philosophy.
How well does Dawkins accomplish his second goal of explaining religion and morality? I found the fifth and sixth chapters, which discuss this issue, quite interesting. I think he does a good job explaining the possible development of religion and morality. However, I find such a goal, if interesting, to be rather useless. There is almost no conceivable human behavior that could not be justified by some sort of Darwinian explanation. The fact that Dawkins can propose some sort of naturalistic account of religion or morality is not at all surprising, and does nothing to undermine religion in general or Christianity in particular.
What about Dawkins’ last goal, to show that religion is harmful? Once again, the fact that religion has been abused in the past, and continues to be used for evil purposes, does nothing to undermine Christianity. But his chapters on biblical morality are full of bluster and completely absent of scholarship.
Richard Dawkins tried to accomplish too much with this book, but in the end accomplished almost nothing. He failed to address relevant arguments for God’s existence, much less refute them, and committed basic philosophical blunders that destroyed his attempt to refute the design argument. If God is actually a delusion, then Richard Dawkins surely hasn’t shown it.
For more on The God Delusion, see these articles:
1. The Evolution of Belief? This article analyzes attempts to demonstrate that religious belief has an evolutionary explanation, especially including ideas found in Dawkins’ book.
2. Dawkins’ Central Argument. This article focuses particularly on Dawkins’ argument for the nonexistence of God based on the evolutionary explanation of life.