Transcript: Podcast 7- Critique of 'The God Delusion'

5 July 2007

For this show I am going to do something a little different. Instead of addressing a specific topic, I want to take a closer look at Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion, a popular book in defense of atheism. Although I have already offered a review of the book in this podcast, I think a more extended look is appropriate, given Dawkins’ recent popularity and influence. So, today’s main feature will be a fuller critique of Dawkins’ book and general approach to religion. For the book review section we are going to take a look at The Case for a Creator by Lee Strobel and Atheism: The Case against God by George H. Smith. And for the audience question, I want to answer a frequent question, and oftentimes criticism, I receive for the name of the website and the podcast as the “Skeptical” Christian. I would like to explain why I chose this name, and in particular what I mean by the word skeptical.

Well, despite my best efforts scouring the Internet for news stories, I have not been able to find anything noteworthy in the area of Christian apologetics. So, I’m going to kick off the show with the main feature: a critical look at Dawkins’ book The God Delusion.

Main Feature: A Critique of “The God Delusion”

One might expect that a book with the bold title “The God Delusion” would spend the majority of its pages discussing, well, evidence against the existence of God. Yet, quite unfortunately, only a small portion of the book is dedicated to this task. Just one chapter is dedicated to addressing the arguments given by theists in favor of God’s existence, and just one chapter contains Dawkins’ argument against the existence of God.

So, what does the rest of the book contain? It’s really quite a potpourri. A chapter each is dedicated to explaining the naturalistic emergence of religion and morality, respectively. Most of the remainder is a discussion of the evils committed by religion, particularly Christianity, and also a critique of the ethics supposedly found in the Bible, and finally a discussion about how an atheist can have a meaningful life.

Since I think it is the most important and foundational topic for Dawkins’ book, I would like to focus first on the arguments for and against the existence of God. After all, if God actually exists, then Dawkins’ musings about the evolutionary emergence of religion and moral monstrosities committed by naughty Christians are quite besides the point.

This brings us to chapter 3, where Dawkins addresses arguments for God’s existence. I have complained about this problem before, but I must mention again that Dawkins really fails to address the most relevant arguments for God’s existence. This is a serious problem, because if he is to carry his thesis that God is a delusion, then he must at least provide responses to the best arguments offered by Christian thinkers today. Two omissions are particularly noteworthy. First, although he does address some forms of the Cosmological Argument, he does not say anything about the Kalam Cosmological Argument, a version which has recently been very popular and which easily overcomes all of the objections that are raised against other types. Second, although he discusses some forms of the Ontological Argument, he says nothing about Alvin Plantinga’s version of the argument based on possible worlds. Now, I am not being uncharitable here by calling Dawkins out for these omissions, because both of the arguments are extremely well known in the philosophy of religion field and so he has no excuse for not addressing them.

In addition to this, several other arguments that I find personally compelling were not considered, including the Argument from Consciousness. But at least we can excuse Dawkins for failing to address these because they are not as popular or well known. In any case, by omitting important arguments for God’s existence, Dawkins has already failed to show that God is a delusion.

Dawkins also tries to deal with the “Argument from Scripture,” apparently addressing the Trilemma arguments, which states that Jesus was either Lord, Liar, or Lunatic, and since we know he was both sane and honest, we should conclude that he is Lord. With a bit of elaboration, I think that this argument has some plausibility, though I would be more apt to argue from the historical evidence for the Resurrection of Christ.

Dawkins critique of Scripture, though, is extremely shallow and it is quite clear that Dawkins is out of his league. First of all he makes grand claims such as “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.” [92-93] without so much as a citation. Why on Earth should we take Dawkins’ word for it? He is by no means an authority on the matter. He is a scientist, not a theologian, biblical scholar, or historian.

Dawkins also tries to instill paranoia by saying that all we have are copies of copies of the original documents. Why exactly this should concern thinking Christians is not clear, especially since the textual backing for the New Testament is by far the best of any ancient text which historians regularly trust, and we have no reason to believe that there are significant problems with the text of Scripture. In fact, most Bibles list any sorts of discrepancies, oftentimes noting a possible alternate reading of a verse here or there. But, none of these problems is significant and no Christian doctrine relies on disputed areas of Scripture.

Returning to the argument, how does Dawkins respond to the Trilemma? He says, “The historical evidence that Jesus claimed any sort of divine status is minimal. But even if that evidence were good, the trilemma on offer would be ludicrously inadequate. A fourth possibility, almost too obvious to need mentioning, is that Jesus was honestly mistaken.” [92]

There are several problems with this response- first of all, it is by no means obvious that someone can sincerely believe they are the Son of God without being insane. But this is a minor issue, because I am more than willing to throw in this possibility and make it a “quadrilemma.” That really doesn’t help the case much if the fourth option is itself horribly unlikely, as is indeed the case here. In fact, the idea that Jesus was honestly mistaken is extremely implausible, given his Jewish background. How does a completely sane Jewish monotheist start believing that he is the Son of God sent to earth to free mankind from the bondage of sin? Dawkins is the one who mentions the possibility, so it is up to him to show that such a thing is plausible if he wants to respond with more than sound bites.

The important claim made here by Dawkins, though without any evidence or citation, is that there is no good evidence that Jesus ever thought he was divine.

There are several problems with this claim- the first one being that it makes the beliefs of early Christians inexplicable. The New Testament critic C.F.D. Moule, for instance, has shown that within twenty years of Jesus’ death a complete Christology proclaiming that Jesus was God incarnate already existed. 1 If Jesus were just a regular bloke, why would monotheistic Jews start proclaiming Him as God incarnate? If, as Dawkins believes, he never made these claims or rose from the dead, then the emergence of the Christian church is quite peculiar.

In any case, a good case for Jesus’ self-perception as divine can be made implicitly on the basis of his actions, even if we restrict ourselves to use materials approved by the extremely skeptical Jesus Seminar. The Jesus Seminar is a group of scholars and non-scholars who have essentially declared that only approximately 20% of Jesus’ sayings in the New Testament are authentic.

To give just a couple of examples, Jesus claimed to have the authority to forgive sins. But, as any good Jew would know, such authority is God’s alone. That is why the religious leaders thought that Jesus’ claim to forgive sins was blasphemous. Moreover, when Jesus prayed he addressed God using the word ‘Abba’, which is an extremely personal word essentially meaning ‘papa.’ No ordinary Jew would have the nerve to address God in such a personal manner, since the very name of God was (and is) extraordinarily sacred.

Dawkins also seems to make the mistake of assuming that Biblical inerrancy is necessary for the Argument from Scripture to go through. Most of his embarrassingly short critique of the Bible is spent discussing alleged contradictions. Christians have responded to all the issues mentioned, and Dawkins does nothing to acknowledge or challenge such responses. But I will let this issue pass- maybe the evangelical responses are unconvincing at the end of the day and we have a genuine contradiction. This would not say anything against the trilemma argument or the Argument from the Resurrection, neither of which depend on Biblical inerrancy.

Dawkins also asserts that the gospels that made it into the canon of scripture were selected, more or less arbitrarily, out of a larger group of potential gospels. This simplistic complaint doesn’t even touch the abundance of scholarship that has looked at the formation of the canon, which cannot be brushed off as an arbitrary selection process. Almost all other possible Gospels for inclusion, including the famous Gospel of Thomas and Gospel of Judas, discovered recently, date much later than Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John and are obvious forgeries because there is no way that the supposed authors could have written them. But once again we can let this issue pass. It’s important to remember that when we are considering an Argument from Scripture, whether it be the trilemma (or quadrilemma, if you prefer) or an argument from the Resurrection of Christ, we are not considering the Bible as the infallible Word of God. Obviously, to make such an assumption would beg the very issue at hand! We simply look at the books of the New Testament, and books outside of the canon, as historical literature and we analyze what probably did happen and what probably did not.

Once we recognize that inerrancy, and even a proper canon, are not necessary for an Argument from Scripture to go through, it is apparent that Dawkins hardly addresses the argument at all. He simply asserts that Jesus might have been honestly mistaken, which we have already seen to be unlikely. And he simply asserts that Jesus probably never thought he was divine, which we saw was unlikely even if we grant for the sake of argument that only a small percentage of Jesus’ sayings were authentic.

Pretty much all of the remaining arguments I would never personally use, and so I have little reason to defend them. But there is one powerful argument still left unaddressed, which is the Teleological Argument I discussed in the last podcast. Dawkins leaves the discussion of this argument for the fourth chapter of his book, where he attempts to turn the argument on its head and show that God’s existence is exceedingly improbable.

Dawkins usefully summarizes the argument he gives at the end of the chapter on pages 157 and 158. This argument consists both of his refutation of the Teleological Argument and an argument against God’s existence. The argument contains the following premises:

“1. One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect has been to explain how the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arises.
2. The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself.
3. The temptation is a false one because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer.
4. The most ingenious and powerful explanation is Darwinian evolution by natural selection.
5. We don’t have an equivalent explanation for physics.
6. We should not give up the hope of a better explanation arising in physics, something as powerful as Darwinism is for biology.

Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist.”

The first thing to notice, I think, is that, to be honest, the conclusion of the argument is simply bizarre given the premises of the argument. Nothing in the six premises even comes close to demonstrating logically that God almost certainly does not exist. At absolute best, Dawkins’ argument shows that we should not infer God’s existence on the basis of the fine-tuning of physics. But this conclusion does not demonstrate that God does not exist, and in fact it does not even demonstrate that it is irrational to believe in God’s existence. One could easily grant, for the sake of argument, that the Teleological Argument is unsound and still rationally believe in God’s existence on the basis of other arguments, such as the Kalam Cosmological Argument which Dawkins never even addresses. Theists have offered a variety of different arguments for God’s existence, and the case does not necessarily rise or fall with the success or failure of the design argument from fine-tuning.

Even aside from arguments given by natural theology, a theist might plausibly believe in the existence of God based on revelation. For instance, a believer could base her case for belief in God on the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ or on the basis of fulfilled prophecy in the Bible. Beyond this, a believer might rationally believe in the existence of God on the basis of personal experience or answered prayer. Thus, Dawkins’ conclusion overstates any inference that could be made from his premises, even if we assume that all the premises are true.

But, as it turns out, many of the premises are just as sloppy as the conclusion.

First, let’s take a look at premise 3, which states, “The temptation [to infer a designer] is a false one, because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer.”

Unfortunately, this premise makes a fundamental mistake about the nature of explanation. In order to offer a compelling explanation of some phenomena, one does not need to offer an explanation of the explanation. If you think carefully about this, then you may notice that we could never explain anything if we needed to explain all our explanations. Such an approach leads to an infinite regress, because any explanation you offer would need an explanation, that explanation would require an explanation, and so on forever. It would literally be impossible to have any knowledge.

Simple examples can demonstrate this truth of logic. For example, if archaeologists discover a piece of pottery, they are justified in inferring that the pottery was designed by some unknown group of people. Even if they had no idea who designed it, where they came from, or how they designed it, this inference would still be justified. We don’t need to have an explanation of the explanation.

Or, suppose that astronauts found complicated machines on an extra-solar planet. They would justifiably infer that some intelligent extraterrestrials designed and created the machines, even if they had absolutely no idea what such beings were like, what planet they came from, or how they designed the complicated machines. Clearly, it would be absurd for the astronauts to say, “since we don’t know anything about any possible alien designers, we cannot conclude that these machines were designed.”

In any case, Dawkins also fails to recognize that God’s existence does not require an explanation, since He has always existed. Since He never began to exist, there is no need to explain His existence. It is important to note that atheists have oftentimes claimed that this is the case with our universe. They claim that the universe has always existed and thus does not need an explanation. But, unfortunately for non-theists, the idea that the universe has always existed is no longer tenable because of advances in science.

Premise 6 is also extremely problematic. It states, “We should not give up the hope of a better explanation arising in physics, something as powerful as Darwinism is for biology.”

Actually, as it plainly reads, I must say that this premise is true. We shouldn’t give up hope that some sort of explanation will arise in physics. It is a live possibility that should be left on the table. But this premise is so weak that it proves absolutely nothing. Basically it is simply arguing that we should not rule out possibilities beforehand.

This weak interpretation of the premise, however, cannot be what Dawkins is really trying to argue here. The meager claim that we should not rule out a Darwinian-type explanation hardly furnishes any sort of reason for thinking that such an explanation is probably true, and it certainly doesn’t allow us to reject the hypothesis that God designed the universe. Thus, I think that Dawkins is actually claiming that it is irrational for us to conclude that God has designed the universe given the possibility that a Darwinian-type explanation might one day emerge.

But why should we think this is true? It seems that Dawkins thinks that the analogy of a design explanation for biological complexity being overcome by a Darwinian-type explanation shows us that we can expect the same thing with regards to physics. But notice that this is inductive reasoning. Unfortunately, it is particularly nasty inductive reasoning, because it is based on a single case! It is simply ludicrous to expect a single example to furnish any sort of inductive case to reject the design explanation in physics. We cannot conclude, after seeing one red flower, that all flowers are red.

In this chapter, Dawkins also tries to lend some credibility to the multiverse hypothesis, according to which the grander cosmos is actually composed of a plethora of universes. Those who listened to episode 6 of this podcast may remember my critique of the multiverse view there, and Dawkins does nothing to support the fledgling hypothesis. Dawkins mentions the oscillating model, according to which our universe simply expands and contracts indefinitely, which even he is forced to admit is contrary to recent cosmological evidence that our universe will expand forever. In actual fact, the oscillating model is extremely implausible, not only because of the speed of expansion but also because the 2nd law of thermodynamics dictates that such a model cannot have been going on for too long 2 and there is no known physical mechanism to bounce back the universe even if it did manage to recontract. 3

He also briefly mentions Lee Smolin’s Black Hole Birth multiverse, which is particularly attractive for Dawkins because it has an evolutionary flavor to it. According to this theory, black holes spawn new universes. This leads to a sort of natural selection for universes, as those universes which are optimized for the production of black holes have more offspring. Lucky for us, the conditions that entail black hole production also are favorable to life. But alas, Dawkins offers no support for this extravagant theory, probably because there is no evidence in favor of it.

And that pretty much wraps up Dawkins’ attempt to refute the Teleological Argument and show that God does not exist. That leaves us with a whole lot of book left discussing peripheral issues.

In chapter 5, Dawkins takes on the task of trying to explain how religion has emerged naturalistically. Dawkins’ own theory is that religion is the byproduct of two separate phenomenon. The first is the tendency, especially for children, to be gullible. Dawkins claims that “For excellent reasons related to Darwinian survival, child brains need to trust parents, and elders whom parents tell them to trust. An automatic consequence is that the truster has no way of distinguishing good advice from bad.” [176] The second tendency is our predisposition to a belief in the soul and our presumption of intentionality. Thus, humans (especially children) naturally believe that there is a soul or a me within the body, which is separate from the body, and they also assume that naturalistic phenomenon are for some purpose (for example, a child will naturally believe that clouds are for raining).

This is all fair enough, but what precisely does it prove? Well, as far as showing that God is a delusion, it proves absolutely nothing. Dawkins doesn’t make the leap here, but if he, or anyone, were to make a leap from such a naturalistic scenario to the conclusion that religious belief is therefore bogus, they would be committing the genetic fallacy. A belief cannot be undermined by pointing to the origin of the belief, it must be considered on its own merits.

Even if this weren’t the case, a general explanation for religion would not be much of a threat to the Christian faith. Christians think that there are many false religions, so it is not surprising that there is some sort of biological basis for the tendency to be religious. But this would not necessarily show that Christianity has similarly emerged naturalistically.

Chapter 6 contains Dawkins’ account of the emergence of morality. This seems to me only tangentially related to the existence of God, since theists often argue that the existence of objective moral values demonstrates that God exists. This moral argument, however, is simply not affected one way or the other by considerations of how morality naturally arose in the human race, for the Moral Argument considers the objective existence of real moral values, it has nothing to do with how or why we believe certain things about morality. Dawkins also seeks to prove that there is no statistically significant difference between believers and atheists as far as morality is concerned. Citing a study by biologist Marc Hauser and philosopher Peter Singer, Dawkins claims that there is support for his view that we do not need God in order to be good or evil.

This, however, should be a rather unobjectionable premise, and I think that only careless theistic thinkers would claim that atheists cannot and do not live lives that are, at least given human standards, quite morally good. The moral argument is not meant to prove that all atheists are despicably evil, it is only to prove that, with atheism, we have no foundation for our beliefs in absolute moral values, such as that it is immoral to rape someone.

And as it goes, Dawkins does a remarkably poor job addressing the question of whether or not moral values are objective, and if so, then how they can exist in the absence of God. Dawkins seems to dislike absolutist moral principles, such as that it is always wrong to kill a terminally ill patient at their own request. But, even on consequentialist ethical theories, moral values are still absolutist principles. Dawkins seems to think that all Christians are, or should be, die-hard absolutists, but this is not my position. For example, we should generally not kill other people, but of course there are exceptions to this principle, such as when a person is attacking me or someone in my vicinity. And we should generally not tell lies, but of course I would gladly lie to a Nazi who wanted to know if I was hiding a Jewish family in my basement. My point is that ethics does not need to be rigid and impractical, but rather a moral person should consider the situation before deciding on the best action.

However, even if we accept pure utilitarianism, according to which ethics should be considered entirely on the basis of consequences, there is still an absolute moral principle, namely, that you should always do the action which will result in the best consequences. At the end of the day, some sort of absolutist moral principle or principles are unavoidable, Dawkins’ distaste notwithstanding.

Dawkins, as far as I can tell, never really declares whether or not he believes that morality is objective or subjective. If he admits that they are subjective, then he will have to deal with the following conclusions:

- There is nothing objectively wrong about torturing children. – There is nothing objectively wrong with rape.

Given the subjective view, our distaste with things like torture and rape are merely the result of evolutionary conditioning, as Dawkins so aptly describes in the chapter. But most people have a hard time stomaching the idea that there is nothing objectively wrong with rape, such that it is only a social convention that we just don’t rape people. Are these strong moral intuitions merely part of the package given our evolutionary ancestry? Maybe, but this still leaves us with the problem that there is actually nothing wrong with rape or torture per say.

If Dawkins wants to go the other route and claim that there are absolute moral values, he must explain why they exist and where they come from. On the purely materialistic view which Dawkins endorses, human beings are just a particularly delicate and complicated concoction of atoms organized in a certain way. But atoms have no moral duties, so why should human beings? Perhaps Dawkins would answer that humans can feel pleasure or pain, which gives us the raw materials needed for morality. But this won’t do, because where do we get the principle that we should promote pleasure and relieve pain in fellow human beings? That principle didn’t come from the atoms bouncing around or from the chemicals that react in our brains. Matter simply doesn’t have moral duties, and if we are nothing but matter, then neither do we. Whether or not the Moral Argument is sound, these are the types of questions Dawkins should be addressing in his book, but which receive no attention whatsoever.

Carrying on his discussion of morality, Dawkins critiques the ethics found in the Bible in Chapter 7. Dawkins’ critique is very similar to those offered by others, particularly those who are not students of the Bible and who have little or no idea about the cultures from which the texts come.

One of the biggest mistakes made by Dawkins is his assumption that the great men and women of the Bible, such as Abraham, Sarah, Lot, Moses, and the rest, are supposed to offer us some ideals for the way that we should live. This is manifestly not the case, and there is nothing in the Bible to give us this role-model approach. In fact, the Bible is extremely clear that all men are sinners, and the fact that Abraham, Lot, and others committed horrendous sins only serves to reinforce this point. So a Christian has no need to defend the pitiful actions often undertaken by these people.

Dawkins also gets really offended by the story when God orders Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. This story is frequently cited by critics of the Bible as a morally abhorrent tale, but to be quite honest I don’t see what the big problem is here. God does not wish for Abraham to follow through with the sacrifice at the end of the story. God never really wanted Abraham to go through with the sacrifice and, in fact, human sacrifice is forbidden in the Old Testament, even though many other religious traditions in the time period encouraged it. The point of God’s ordering Abraham to kill his son is obviously for Abraham to demonstrate his absolute trust in God, not to set a Biblical model for child sacrifice.

Here one might complain that it is immoral to do something even if you are doing it to follow orders of a superior. It is no defense for a Nazi to say that he slaughtered a Jewish family just because he was ordered to. He cannot rid himself of responsibility because he was just following orders.

Yet, it seems to me that there is a powerful asymmetry between God ordering Abraham to kill his son and a military official making the same order. As Abraham knew, God is perfectly wise, perfectly just, and perfectly moral, and it thus makes sense to follow His direct commandments even when they seem wrong.

In fact, it seems to me that there are even cases where we would be justified in listening to a trusted source and committing an act which seems, on the face of it, immoral. For example, suppose that you have a brother whom you love deeply, have known for 45 years, and who you know personally to be a morally upright individual. Suppose you walked into a room with a gun, after a hunting trip we’ll say, and you see your brother and one other person in the room. Your brother looks you in the eye directly and says in the most forceful way possible, “You must kill him, you have to trust me, there is no time!” Based on the fact that you know your brother would never ask you to kill someone without proper justification, it is plausible to suppose that you are morally justified, or at least morally reasonable, to shoot the man on the basis of his request. This would, of course, be an extremely tough decision to follow through with, and I am by no means certain that I would be able to pull the trigger without some knowledge of the justification. But I think we can still say that it is not necessarily morally wrong for me to go through with the action. Furthermore, we could imagine tougher moral dilemmas that would more forcefully demonstrate the point that it may sometimes be justified for us to follow the instruction of a person whom we know to be morally upright and who is in a position to know more about the situation than we do.

Now, compared to this case with your brother, the case of a direct command from God is child’s play. God is a morally perfect being who has absolutely perfect knowledge, and so Abraham has every reason to place his faith in God and trust that, for whatever reason, sacrificing his son is the right thing to do.

Dawkins also objects to God’s strong prohibition of worshiping other Gods. I can understand that this does not make sense from an atheistic perspective, but from a Christian perspective it makes perfect sense. According to Christianity, God is the only God, and as a perfect being, He is the one that people should follow. Moreover, belief in God, and, in New Testament times, belief in Jesus Christ as savior is necessary to release us from the guilt of our sin and to receive salvation. Thus, it is of primary importance that we recognize and worship the one true God. This is why God is so strict on this account, those that stray away are eternally separated from Him.

When it comes to the New Testament, Dawkins turns to a critique of the doctrines of original sin and atonement. As far as the atonement, Dawkins seems uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus went through torture and death in order to make salvation possible. I personally don’t see what is so repelling about this doctrine since Jesus voluntarily did it, not out of compulsion but out of love for humankind. In any case, Dawkins never makes clear exactly what is wrong with the doctrine, so he expresses not an objection per say, but merely a personal discomfort. But Dawkins’ personal discomfort with the doctrine of atonement is no reason for us to reject it.

Dawkins also makes the assumption, following John Hartung, that Jesus only meant his moral teachings to apply to fellow Jews, so that when he commands others to ‘Love thy neighbor’ he is really saying ‘Love thy fellow Jew.’ I haven’t read Hartung’s work, but Dawkins never provides any real arguments in favor of Hartung’s thesis except quotation of a few extra-Biblical Jewish texts, which, needless to say, Christians do not consider authoritative anyways. In any case, a fair reading of the New Testament does not give us the conclusion that Jesus only cared about Jews. For example, he declares a Roman Centurion to have great faith and heals his servant in the Gospel of Luke. In fact, consider the final words Luke records of Jesus in chapter 24, verse 36:

‘He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Thus, while Jesus may have focused on preaching to Jews during his earthly ministry, he clearly intends for the disciples to carry this message to everyone, with power given by God.

Moreover, you essentially have to reject the authority of Paul if you want to seriously maintain the idea that Jesus came only to preach to the Jews.

I would like to say one last thing before I move on. Even if Dawkins is right and the Bible is not a good source of morality, that doesn’t disprove Christianity, it only disproves Biblical inerrancy. But many Christians don’t hold to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, it is by no means a necessary doctrine. So a Christian could happily concede that many things in the Bible are immoral, and still contend that we have good reasons to believe in God and in the resurrection of Christ on the basis of the evidence.

Chapter 8 is about what is wrong with religion. Not surprisingly, he uses examples of the most extremist and, oftentimes, quite stupid religious people, particularly those that come from Muslim or Christian traditions. But with over 2 billion Christians and more than a billion Muslims on the planet, is it really all that surprising that he can find a few nutcases to complain about?

This causes Dawkins to make serious mistakes, like lumping together opposition to abortion and the practice of killing abortion performing doctors which has been undertaken by some extreme Christians. Dawkins makes several thinking errors commonly committed by those in favor of abortion and embryonic stem cell research. Those that are interested in this subject are encouraged to read my articles on these topics at my website under the ethics section. The fact of the matter is that a good secular case can be made that both abortion and embryonic stem cell research are wrong because they involve the murder of innocent human persons. Although Dawkins apparently doesn’t seem to think that this is an important issue. Consider what he says on pages 297 and 298:

“Suffering is hard to measure, and the details might be disputed. But that doesn’t affect my main point, which concerns the difference between secular consequentialist and religiously absolute moral philosophies. One school of thought cares about whether embryos can suffer. The other cares about whether they are human. Religious moralists can be heard debating questions like, ‘When does the developing embryo become a person – a human being?’ Secular moralists are more likely to ask, ‘Never mind whether it is human (what does that even mean for a little cluster of cells?); at what age does any developing embryo, of any species, become capable of suffering.’”

Thus, we see that Dawkins seems to think that morality is all and only about reducing human suffering. If it doesn’t suffer- go ahead and kill it! We’ve already seen that Dawkins cannot ground any sort of moral judgment like ‘we should reduce suffering’ given his materialist philosophy, but we shall let that pass for now. Notice that Dawkins’ position here, if carried out consistently, would lead to absolutely terrible ethical judgments.

For example, persons who are unconscious cannot feel pain if they are killed immediately. So why not kill them, if it is convenient for increasing the pleasure of currently conscious humans or animals? Why not kill a sleeping man and take his heart to give it to a much-needed donor? Never mind whether or not the man is a human, after all, but is he capable of suffering? This seems to me an inescapable conclusion from Dawkins’ moral reasoning, and it is obviously not only insufficient but actually quite pathetic. Yet, ironically, Dawkins is lambasting the so-called Religious Right for their ethical views.

Of course, once again, none of this has anything to do with whether or not Christianity is true. In fact, not all Christians are pro-life and not all Christians are against embryonic stem cell research, and some non-Christians and even atheists are anti-abortion and are against embryonic stem cell research. But it is worth noting that Dawkins fares as less than impressive as a moral philosopher.

In Chapter 9 Dawkins raises more complaints about the fruits of religion, and the final chapter dealt with the meaning of life. Since I am doing the next podcast episode on the meaning of life, I will leave this issue aside for the time being and offer some concluding thoughts about the book.

I really think that 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. Much of the book is simply Dawkins ranting about some inappropriate actions taken by religious people, and many times I agree with Dawkins and I have no reason to defend the actions. But this doesn’t tell us anything about whether or not Christianity is true, much less whether or not God exists. If God really is a delusion, then Dawkins hasn’t given us a good reason to think He is.

Book Reviews

The Case for a Creator

The Case for a Creator is Lee Strobel’s most recent book in his “case for” series, published in 2005, and it offers a broad look at the various strands of evidence for God’s existence found in fields such as biology, astronomy, cosmology, and philosophy. As usual, Strobel interviews leading Christian scholars on the issues he covers. This book has some great interviews, my favorites were a discussion of the Teleological Argument with Robin Collins, a defense of the Kalam Cosmological Argument with William Lane Craig, and a neat discussion of the evidence for a soul and against materialist philosophy by J.P. Moreland. I was especially happy with the inclusion of the interview with Moreland, because I think that the evidence for consciousness is an often-overlooked source of evidence for belief in God.

The issues discussed in the book are unavoidably technical at times, but Strobel’s accessible writing style makes for an enjoyable read nonetheless. Obviously, it is impossible to cover each topic in great detail in the span of a short chapter, but this book provides a great start for those who want to delve deeply into the issues discussed on its pages.

My biggest concern was that the book seems to assume throughout that evolution implies atheism. However, many Christians believe in evolution, and so I think it is unwise to draw a line in the sand at this point in the discussion. By implying that evolution implies atheism, Strobel puts an unnecessary stumbling block in front of any person who believes that there is strong evidence for evolutionary theory, yet who could still be convinced on the basis of other evidence that God exists.

I was also somewhat disappointed with the argument from astronomy in which Strobel interviewed Guillermo Gonzales and Jay Wesley Richards. They argue that producing a life-permitting planet is a difficult task requiring the lucky convergence of multiple factors. Yet, I felt that their argument lacked rigor. They never quantified any of the improbabilities, so we apparently have no idea exactly how unlikely it is for a planet to permit intelligent life. Moreover, if the argument is to be successful, then we must compare the likelihood of a like-permitting planet to the number of planets or planetary systems that probably exist in the universe. Without such a calculation, it is certainly presumptuous to say that the improbability of an Earth-like planet is evidence for a Creator’s guiding hand. We simply lack the data to make the claim that at least one Earth-like planet is improbable in this universe without a Designer’s guidance.

These shortcomings aside, The Case for a Creator is still a good treatment of the evidence for a Creator. And, just like the rest of Strobel’s books, it is also fun to read. My rating for this book, 3 stars out of 5.

Atheism: The Case against God

The next book I’d like to review today is “Atheism: The Case against God” by George H. Smith. Even though this book is a bit older, first published in 1980, it is a popular book on atheism and is often highly recommended by nonbelievers. Unfortunately, the fact that the book is a bit older means that it does not address some important recent issues in the philosophy of religion, such as the Teleological Argument from the fine-tuning of the constants of the universe and the Argument from Nonbelief. Yet, the book has some additional shortcomings.

One problem with the book is that it really is inappropriately named. Smith only spends one out of four sections actually discussing arguments for the existence of God, and this section is by far the shortest in the book. In actuality, the larger portion of the book is a critique of Christianity in particular, not God in general. The largest section is a discussion of the difference between faith and reason, but since I don’t think that Smith has a correct or Biblical concept of what faith means, I think this whole portion of the book is simply irrelevant.

Smith also places an excessive emphasis on supposed incompatible properties arguments. These are arguments that purport to show that the concept of God is inherently contradictory, so that it is impossible that God actually exists. But, as even many atheists recognize, these arguments are often based on word play, and most can be easily resolved if a theist is careful in his or her definition of God.

The final section of the book deals with supposedly bad consequences of belief and the evils that have been committed by Christians. Once again, however, these issues are separate from the issue of whether or not God exists, which is really what the book should be focusing on. Moreover, Smith’s attempt to develop a secular ethic is quite unpersuasive.

Smith’s book may be a good read in order to understand the atheist position, but it suffers from many flaws that prevent it from making its case. My rating for this book: 2 stars out of 5.

Audience Question

I’d like to address a question that several people have posed in the past just to clear up an issue. Some people have questioned why I call this podcast, as well as the website, “The Skeptical Christian.” A few people have criticized me for carrying the label skeptical even though I seem to be quite confident in my beliefs as a Christian.

There are several ways that the term skeptical could be interpreted here. One might interpret it in the sense of philosophical skepticism, which encompasses a large range of philosophical viewpoints. One type of skepticism, for example, is knowledge skepticism, a thesis which claims that people do not have and cannot gain actual knowledge. In any case, I actually think that all the different varieties of philosophical skepticism have serious problems and I do not subscribe to any of them.

One could also interpret skeptical to mean that I am either wishy-washy about my beliefs or that I have serious doubts about my beliefs. This is not what I am getting at here either. The last thing I want to be is wishy-washy about things which I think are of ultimate importance. Moreover, though I would never claim that I am free of any doubts, I do have strong convictions that the fundamentals of the Christian faith, including the existence of God and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, are true, which is why I have attempted to structure my life around these truths.

What I mean when I say that I am a skeptical Christian is basically the opposite of being a gullible Christian. By skeptical, I mean that I do not simply accept dogmas or believe whatever I am told, rather, I look into the issues to discover if there are good reasons to believe them.

Really, the reason I decided to name the website the Skeptical Christian is to respond to the atheistic and agnostic community, who often call themselves skeptical, or freethinkers. You will notice this trend just by reading a sample of material written by these nonbelievers, or just by noticing the names of their websites, such as the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible. The obvious implication is that anybody who thinks deeply about these issues or who doubts or questions dogmas and received opinion will ultimately be an atheist or an agnostic. So, in essence, I wish to challenge that claim. Even though I have thought deeply about issues of religion, I am still a Christian, and in fact I am a confident Christian on the basis of the evidence.

Now, at this point, someone may question my claim to truly be skeptical. Am I just a dogmatic Christian poseur? Well, if someone wishes to believe that, that is their prerogative. I can’t really prove to anyone that I really am skeptical in the way that I have defined here. But, frankly, I don’t really care if people think I am. Such a fact has nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not the arguments I offer are valid and sound. Even if I were a gullible, ignorant, dogmatic fool, this would not go to show that the arguments I offer are false, and much less would it show that Christianity is not true.

NOTES:

1. Craig, William Lane. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. Leicester: Crossway Books, 1994. p. 243.

2. Duane Dicus, et.al. “Effects of Proton Decay on the Cosmological Future.” Astrophysical Journal 252 (1982): l, 8.

3. Beatrice Tinsley, personal letter. Cited from Craig, William Lane at http://www.leaderu.com/truth/3truth11.html



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