Bertrand Russell was the most popular and quotable atheist of the 20C. The favorite spokesman for infidelity.
But he died back in 1970, leaving a large pair of shoes to fill. Since then there have been a number of contenders for the crown, but no one really caught on.
It takes a combination of a zippy prose style along with some sort of institutional standing to fill the job description.
In our own time, Richard Dawkins has come to assume the mantle of the late Lord Russell. Dawkins had become the pope of apostasy.
Russell never attempted to mount a systematic attack on the Christian faith. He contented himself with witty occasional pieces.
For several years now, Dawkins has also been sniping at the Christian faith. But as he has aged, his attack on Christianity has moved from the periphery to the center.
His A Devil’s Chaplain was a trial run, but with The God Delusion, he has now gathered his scattered objections to religion in general and Christianity in particular into one consecutive argument—although it still reads a lot like a set of occasional pieces which have been edited into a something resembling a continuous argument.
This shift in tone and content is, itself, a cause for comment. Somewhere in the middle of his career he gave up serious, scientific research for the role of a social critic, advocate, and popularizer.
Is it because he’s past his intellectual prime? Is it because he ran out of new and profound things to say about evolutionary theory?
The older he gets, the angrier he gets. The older he gets, the thinner he spreads himself.
Dawkins is a man in a hurry. One senses a man who’s running out of time. The clock is ticking. The grave beckons.
One also senses a bitter, resentful man. There’s a desperate quality to his later writings. As if he’s fighting a losing battle. Making his last stand.
Don’t Christians know we were beaten fair and square? How dare we fail to admit defeat, lay down our arms, and march into the gas chambers of atheism?
Even though he thinks his side has won the intellectual battle, it’s been denied the spoils of victory.
Those evil Christians refuse to abandon their smoldering outpost and turn the keys for the fortified city over to the conqueror.
One of the odd things about reading Dawkins is his obliviousness to the real threat. Christianity is nearly in eclipse in Europe and the United Kingdom.
Yet as he stares down the politically powerless remnant of Continental Christianity, we can see, over his shoulder, the looming army of jihadis darkening his native soil like a wave of locusts, blackening the sky and swarming overland.
It’s not that he’s entirely unmindful of the Muslim menace in his own backyard—indeed, in his own frontyard. But his critique of Islam lacks the blunt immediacy and sustained assault of his obsession with Christianity. Far more on the Bible than the Koran; far more on Yahweh than Allah; far more on Jesus than Muhammad.
Is he afraid of violent reprisal if he were as direct and unremitting in his critique of Islam? Is he afraid of legal action?
Or is this the stereotypical fixation of the apostate—who has left the faith, but cannot bear the thought that anyone would have the temerity to stay behind.
He can’t stand the United States because we remain the most Christian country in the Western world. He would like nothing more than to secularize the United States, bringing us in line with Europe and the United Kingdom.
Yet the only thing standing in the way of global jihad is the American hyperpower. And that owes as much to our religious resolve as it does to our military might or economic clout—while the secular left has capitulated to a suicidal multiculturalism in which our mortal enemies are given the house-keys to slit our throats as we sleep.
He’s like a man who’s fighting for the best deck chair on the Titanic as the iceberg approaches.
In reviewing his book, we might begin at the end rather than the other way round. For his bibliography is revealing it what it includes or omits.
Nothing by Plantinga or Moreland, Gary Habermas or William Lane Craig. Nothing by Dembski or Denton. Bas Van Fraassen or Stephen Barr.
And I’m only mentioning some of the more famous names.
Nothing by Rupert Sheldrake. Nothing by David Stove.
There’s also a total whiteout where moderate to conservative Biblical scholarship is concerned.
This does to a point of tension in his attitude towards Christianity. He regards Christianity as a spent intellectual force, but a potent political force.
It’s not, I think, that he’s chosen to blacklist conservative Christian opinion. Rather, he’s made up his mind that they have nothing worthwhile to say.
Of course, this is circular. He doesn’t know enough to care, and he doesn’t care enough to know.
As a result, much of his attack on the Christian faith never begins to engage the opposing side of the argument.
But even more striking is whom he chooses to include. It’s rather arresting to see the extent of his reliance on lightweight popularizers like Douglas Adams, Dan Barker, Samuel Harris, Michael Shermer, John Spong, Julia Sweeney, G. A. Wells, and A. N. Wilson.
Not only has Dawkins become nothing more than a soapbox popularizer, but he is increasingly in the intellectual debt of other soapbox popularizers.
And it’s not just in the bibliography. These people figure in the body of the text. They supply a fair amount of argumentation.
(Sweeney is in the body of the text rather than the bibliography.)
It’s another sign of his intellectual decline that an Oxford don with a doctorate from the same august institution is reduced to quoting so many flakes and dilettantes to help him make his case.
Once could understand an Adams, Harris, or Shermer quoting Dawkins to lend intellectual prestige to their cause, but when Dawkins must turn to them to help him fill out the argument, what has he come to?
Here’s a man with access to the best minds in the business. Is this what it all boils down to?
When is he going to become a regular guest of Oprah or Saturday Night Live?
I have to wonder if he isn’t becoming an embarrassment to professionals in the field who might otherwise appreciate his religious antipathies, but wince at having him turn into the public face of scientific establishment.
The whole exercise becomes self-defeating when the intellectual inferiority of the performance directly undercuts the stated aim of establishing the intellectual superiority of atheism.
So much for preliminaries. Let’s to turn specifics.
He launches an attack on the tax exemption of churches in the U.S. But since he doesn’t live in the U.S., why does he think that’s any of his business?
The tax exemption for churches is simply a special case of the tax exemption for non-profit organizations.
And if one doesn’t like that arrangement, there are alternatives, such as abolishing the graduated income tax in favor of a flat tax.
I’d add that I regard the property tax as immoral—as if we’re renting space from the government. We’re tenant farmers while the state is the landlord—or slumlord, as the case may be.
He then makes fun of the old Christological and Trinitarian debates by asking, “What’s substance? What exactly do you mean by ‘essence’? ‘Very little’ seems to be the only reasonable reply” (33).
Actually, “substance” is a major metaphysical category with an enormously detailed philosophical literature on the subject.
Just for starters, he could begin by reading Christopher Stead’s Divine Substance (Oxford 1977), followed by the author’s Substance & Illusion in the Christian Fathers (Variorum 1985).
Dawkins thinks it’s cute and clever to be dismissive of Patristic debates, but his ignorant reaction merely betrays his anti-intellectualism.
Not a few of his fellow faculty members at Oxford could set him straight on these issues. But he’s too arrogant to ask for advice.
He then asks if “we have one God in three parts, or three Gods in one?”
But questions like this fail to distinguish between abstract complexity/simplicity and concrete complicity/simplicity—an issue I’ll revisit.
He then refers to Abraham has a “mythological” patriarch. How does he know that?
The OT patriarchal narratives mesh very well with our extrabiblical sources of information regarding ANE culture at that time and place.
Moving along, he quotes Gore Vidal on how the patriarchal God of the OT accounts for the “loathing of women for 2,000 years in those countries afflicted by the sky-god and his earthly male delegates,” (37).
This is quite funny coming from a homosexual misogynist like Gore Vidal—a man who wasn’t on speaking terms with his own mother.
Women have a lot of rights in the Mosaic Law—far in advance of ANE culture generally. Cf. W. Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics (Zondervan 1983), 206-207,277; 285-288.
Dawkins then attempts to rewrite Constitutional history by presenting a secularized version of our Founding Fathers.
Once again, why this preoccupation with the U.S.? He’s a citizen of the U.K., not the U.S.
I’d add that his account of Constitutional history is highly selective and one-sided. To redress the imbalance, consult a few of the following titles:
D. Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State (New York University Press 2003)
P. Hamburger, Separation of Church and State (Harvard University Press; New Ed edition 2004)
P. Lillback, George Washington's Sacred Fire (Providence Forum Press 2006)
M. Novak, On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding (Encounter Books; Expanded edition 2003)
M. Novak, Washington's God (Basic Books 2006)
Moving along, Dawkins says, “I shall suggest that the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any other…God’s existence or nonexistence is a scientific fact about the universe, discoverable in principle if not in practice” (50).
But this is simplistic. For it disregards the nature of the object of knowledge. God is not an empirical object.
Now, God can leave empirical effects. So scientific evidence is one possible line of evidence. So is historical evidence.
And so are a priori arguments based on abstract objects, the principle of sufficient reason, and so forth.
Also, to cast the existence of God as a “hypothesis,” whether scientific or otherwise, is prejudicial.
He then attempts to stake the deck against the existence of God by comparing that proposition to a celestial teapot, indetectible unicorn, and Flying Spaghetti Monster.
But there are several problems with that comparison:
i) We already know that these are imaginary hypotheticals. They are concocted for the express purpose of contriving an artificial parallel with theism.
ii) Moreover, they are deliberately absurd.
iii) He is assuming that God enjoys the same evidentiary standing, or lack thereof, as such imaginary, and deliberately ridiculous, hypotheticals.
So all he’s given the reader is an argument from analogy minus the argument.
But Dawkins’ target is much broader than creationism. He has many enemies. He’s an equal-opportunity sniper.
It isn’t enough to believe in evolution. No, you must be the right sort of Darwinian.
He can’t stand the theistic evolution of Alister McGrath, Francis Collins, Arthur Peacocke, or John Polkinghorne.
He can’t stand the religiously neutral evolution of Michael Ruse, Eugene Scott, or Stephan Jay Gould.
For him, it comes down to an utterly stark choice between Biblical creationism and naturalistic evolution.
Now, I myself am quite comfortable with that choice. But it shows you how much he’s up against. He must frequently feel a lot like a mouse in a snake pit.
In the course of this discussion he spends several pages (58-65) on Richard Swinburne. Now, Swinburne is well to the left of my own theology.
But on the specifics of this particular skirmish, I think that Swinburne generally gets the better of the argument.
Most-all of what Dawkins’ does is not to out-argue Swinburne’s reasoned position, but to express his thin-lipped disapproval. Yet finger-waging, however vigorous, is not an argument.
In chapter three he runs through some of the arguments for God’s existence.
What is striking here is his failure to acknowledge, much less interact, with the standard literature.
Regarding Thomism, he objects to the first three of the five ways partly on the grounds that “they make the entirely unwarranted assumption that God himself is immune to the regress” (77).
But Aquinas doesn’t “assume” any such thing. Rather, he argues his point. So Dawkins is the one who is arbitrarily assuming that God is not immune to the regress.
Dawkins also says there’s no reason to endow the prime mover with all the attributes of Christian theology.
That’s true, but it disregards the cumulative nature of the five ways as well as the distinction between natural and revealed theology in Aquinas. Aquinas never imagined that he had a one-step argument for Christian theism.
I’m not a Thomist myself, but Dawkins isn’t beginning to do justice to the intricacy of overall position.
One of his problems is the idea that he can jump staight into 13C scholasticism without any background knowledge. A serious critic would at least make some preliminary attempt to acquaint himself with some of the standard expository literature on Thomistic natural theology so that he was fairly sure of what Aquinas had in mind, viz.,
B. Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Oxford 1992)
_____. Thomas Aquinas (Oxford 2002).
L. Elders, The Philosophical Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas (Leiden 1990)
A. Kenny, The Five Ways (Routledge 1969)
J. Wippel, The Metaphysical Thought of Thomas Aquinas (CUA 2000)
And what is true of Thomism is true more generally with respect to Dawkins’ apparent ignorance of the standard literature on the theistic proofs, viz.,
W. Craig, The Cosmological Argument from Plato to Leibniz (Wipf & Stock 2001).
W. Craig, The Kalam Cosmological Argument (Wipf & Stock 2000)
W. Craig & M. McLeod, eds. The Logic of Rational Theism (Lewiston 1990).
S. Davis, God, Reason and Theistic Proofs (Eerdmans 1979)
R. Swinburne, The Existence of God (Oxford 2004)*
*This is the only major work by Swinburne that Dawkins bothers to reference, and then only superficially.
Dawkins then levels the silly objection that if God is omniscient, he cannot be omnipotent—for he cannot both foreknow the future and change the future.
But this is a straw man argument. Omnipotence was never defined as a self-referential attribute, but as a creative attribute. It doesn’t apply to God—to what God could do to himself—but to the realization of any compossible state of affairs.
He then says it’s “more parsimonious to conjure up, say, a ‘big bang singularity’” than to invoke the prime mover (78).
But that’s a false dichotomy. For there is often a trade-off between syntactic simplicity and ontological simplicity—between the simplicity of the explanans (i.e. the explanation) and the simplicity of the explanandum (the thing to be explained). Cfl:
Dualism has a simpler explanation for abstract objects. Monism has a simpler ontology, but pays for that simplicity by a more convoluted explanation of abstract objects—assuming that it can explain them at all.
In addition, Occam’s razor is often premature and prejudicial: if we already knew how simple or complex reality was, then we wouldn’t need to invoke this rule of thumb in the first place.
So the principle of parsimony begs the question by getting way ahead of the evidence.
It’s especially ironic for Dawkins to invoke this methodological principle when he castigates intelligent design for its intellectual impatience—as he sees it—since Dawkins is using parsimony as a shortcut to putty over the gaps in his own belief-system.
Regarding the Thomistic argument from degree, Dawkins says: “substitute any dimension of comparison you like, and derive an equivalently fatuous conclusion” (79).
But is that true? For example, doesn’t the problem of evil presuppose a distinction between good and evil which, in turn, presupposes a source and standard of moral absolutes?
Likewise, what about the notion of design flaws in nature? Doesn’t dysteology presuppose teleology?
I’ll skip the teleological argument for now since he saves his major treatment for chapter 4.
His critique of the ontological argument amounts to a denial rather than a disproof.
He never addresses the modal version of the argument by Plantinga.
He draws a comparison with Zeno’s paradoxes, and says, “the Greeks had the sense not to conclude that therefore Achilles really would fail to catch the tortoise” (81-82).
But, for most of us, that’s not the issue. We take for granted that Achilles will overtake the tortoise. The deeper issue concerns the conditions under which it’s possible for Achilles to overtake the tortoise.
Dawkins then says that later generations of mathematicians solved the paradox by “the theory of infinite series converging on a limiting value” (82).
But that doesn’t solve the problem. It merely pushes the problem back a step. How can an actual, abstract infinite be exemplified in a potential, concrete infinite?
A more promising line of resolution would be to see reexamine our philosophy of time. Zeno’s paradoxes concern the infinite divisibility of time and space. And not with space in isolation, but locomotion.
But if the B-theory of time is true, then time is a given totality—in which case there is no supertask to complete.
So Zeno’s paradoxes reflect a valid, albeit inchoate, intuition. It took McTaggart and his successors (e.g. Mellor, LePoidevin, Oaklander) to disambiguate the paradox. Zeno really was on to something. He was asking the right question, but giving the wrong answer.
Dawkins cites Russell as asking, “The real question is: Is there anything we can think of which, by the mere fact that we can think of it, is shown to exist outside out thought…If yes is the right answer, there is a bridge from pure thought to things. If not, not” (82).
But Dawkins answers in the negative. Yet there’s a suicidal price to pay for that negation. If mentality cannot reach an extramental reality, then there’s no reason to believe in the existence of other minds or an external world.
So Dawkins’ scepticism condemns him to solipsism.
He then refers to the refutations of the ontological argument by Hume and Kant as “definitive.” But, of course, they are hardly definitive. The debate is alive and well.
Is existence a “predicate”? Surely the modal properties of an object (necessity, possibility, impossibility) are integral to the definition of an object—whether abstract or concrete.
Oddly enough, he cites Norman Malcolm in his defense. But Malcolm was a champion of the ontological argument.
Dawkins then cites an ontological disproof of God’s existence, beginning with the premise that “the creation of the world is the most marvelous achievement imaginable” (83).
But this is hardly parallel to the ontological argument. Is there a best possible world? Is the nonexistence of the world inconceivable?
Same thing with his ontological “proof” that pigs can fly. Dawkins is resorting to ridicule in place of reason reason.
He also attacks the argument from religious experience. But there are several flaws in his attempted rebuttal.
He operates with an unduly narrow definition of religious experience. He seems to equate religious experience with spiritual visions and auditions.
But spiritual experience is broader than that. It can include unmistakable answers to prayer, or a miraculous deliverance.
It can also include a more subtle and cumulative sense of God’s providential presence in the life of a believer—as seen in retrospect.
It can include the embodiment of God’s grace in the lives of saintly Christians.
It can involve the correspondence between the spiritual experience described in Scripture and the actual experience of the believer.
The argument from religious experience is a special case of tacit knowledge. A preanalytic awareness of God’s existence and presence.
In the nature of the case, only an insider is privy to this experience—so it’s apologetic value is limited. But that does not invalidate the experience for the recipient.
There are a number of sophisticated discussions of the argument from religious experience which Dawkins completely ignores, viz.
W. Alston, Perceiving God (Cornell 1991)
D. Davis, The Evidential Force of Religious Experience (Oxford 1989)
J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City (Baker 1989), 231-40.
N. Pike, Mystic Union (Cornell 1992)
A. Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford 2000), 180-84; 326-53.
R. Swinburne, The Existence of God (Oxford 1991)
K. Yandell, The Epistemology of Religious Experience (Cambridge 1995).
Most of the time, Dawkins acts as if it’s perfectly okay for him to attack Christian theology without bothering to acquaint himself with Christian definitions or Christian arguments.
More often than not he summarizes the opposing side without getting any of his information from the opposing side.
Imagine if I were to get all my information about evolution from anti-evolutionary literature?
Returning to his own definition, he counters the appeal to spiritual visions and auditions by citing the counterexample of lunatics.
Well, that works well enough in the case of lunatics. But what about seers or visionaries in their right mind?
Or is Dawkins operating with a viciously circular argument in which anyone that lays claim to a spiritual vision or audition is, by definition, a lunatic?
If so, then he is begging the question by positing a tendentious definition which assumes the very thing it needs to prove.
How do we know they’re deluded? Because only a deluded individual would bear witness to such an experience.
They’re deluded because their experience is delusional, and they’re experience is delusional because they are deluded.
He also cites the example of optical illusions. Once again, that works well enough for impressions which are demonstrably illusionary. But what about those that aren’t?
In dealing with Fatima, he says, “it may seem improbable that seventy thousand people could simultaneously deluded, or could simultaneously collude in a mass lie. Or that history is mistaken in recording that seventy thousand people claimed to see the sun dance. Or that they all simultaneously saw a mirage…But any of those apparent improbabilities is far more probable than the alternative: that the Earth was suddenly yanked sideways in its orbit, and the solar system destroyed, with nobody outside Fatima noticing” (91-92).
Up to a point, I happen to think this is one time that Dawkins has the better of the argument.
However, as I also cited in my review of TET, the record of the event is a good deal more equivocal that he’s aware of.
Finally, in his efforts to dispatch the argument from religious experience, he offers this objection as well:
“The human brain runs first-class simulation software. Our eyes don’t present to our brains a faithful photograph of what is out there, or an accurate movie of what is going on through time. Our brains construct a continuously updated model: updated by coded pulses chattering along the optic nerve, but constructed nevertheless…And the same thing works for hearing” (88-90).
He will return to this same theme later in the book:
“It is useful for our brains to construct notions like solidity and impenetrability, because such notions help us navigate our bodies through a world in which objects—which we call solid—cannot occupy the same space as each other…Our brains are not equipped to imagine what it would be like to be a neutrino passing through a wall, in the vast interstices of which that wall ‘really’ consists. Nor can our understanding cope with what happens when things move at close to the speed of light” (369).
“’Really’ isn’t a word we should use with simple confidence. If a neutrino had a brain which had evolved in neutrino-sized ancestors, it would say that rocks ‘really’ do consist mostly of empty space. We have brains that evolved in medium-sized ancestors, who couldn’t walk through rocks, so our ‘really’ is a ‘really’ in which rocks are solid. ‘Really,’ for an animal, is whatever its brain needs it to be, in order to assist its survival. And because different species live in such different worlds, there will be a troubling variety of ‘reallys’ (371).
“What we see of the real world is not the unvarnished real world but a model of the real world, regulated and adjusted by sense data—a model that is constructed so that it is useful for dealing with the real world. The nature of that model depends on the kind of animal we are” (371).
“The nature of the model is governed by how it is to be used rather than by the sensory modality involved…Once again, the perceptions that we call colours are tools used by our brains to label important distinctions in the outside world. Perceived hues—what philosophers call qualia—have no intrinsic connection with lights of particular wavelengths. They are internal labels that are available to the brain, when it constructs its model of external reality, to make distinctions that are especially salient to the animal concerned” (373).
The problem with this line of argument is not that it’s false, but with what it implies if it’s true.
Let’s apply his own reasoning to the following claims:
“Unfortunately for Paley, the mature Darwin blew [the teleological argument] out of the water…Thanks to Darwin, it is no longer true to say that nothing that we know looks designed unless it is designed. Evolution by natural selection produces an excellent simulacrum of design…And among these eminences of pseudo-design are nervous systems” (79).
“We could easily have had no fossils at all, and still the evidence for evolution from other sources, such as molecular genetics and geographical distribution, would be overwhelmingly strong” (127).
Of course, many men and women of science would deny his interpretation of the evidence. They would say, to the contrary, that the evidence undermines evolution.
Yet let’s play along with his argument. Let us stipulate, ex hypothesi, that every bit of evidence is pointing, like a flashing, neon fingerpost, in the direction of evolution.
But assuming his theory of perception, what does the observer actually see when he looks at the fossil record or the evidence of molecular genetics and geographical distribution?
Does he see what is actually “out there”? What is given in the natural world?
Or does he see what he is projecting onto the natural world? An exercise in mirror-reading?
If what we see is not a “faithful photograph of what is out there,” not the world as it “really” is, but only or largely a variable model or cryptogram or simulation which is constructed by the brain, having no intrinsic connection with the objective properties of the external world, then the evidence for evolution is pseudo-evidence—a simulacrum of fossil record or other sources.
There is no way, on this view, of correcting for the gap between appearance and reality. You can never test perception against reality, for reality is inaccessible to the percipient. What he takes to be reality is filtered through the “simulation software” of the brain. Where construction leaves off and reality begins is indetectible.
Dawkins’ criterion is utilitarian rather than alethic. Whatever confers a survival advantage. Our model of the world needn’t be true, only useful—and what is useful varies from one species to another. Indeed, given that variation, our model of the world couldn’t possible be true to the world.
At this point we could put his book down. At this point we could ignore all of his earlier books as well.
For, by his own lights, he cannot tell us what the world is like. And, in that event, there is no scientific evidence for evolution, or historical geology, or the Big Bang singularity.
From here he moves on to the argument from Scripture. He dusts off the stock objections to the gospels, viz. the census of Quirinius, the variant genealogies of Matthew and Luke, the question of where Jesus was born (Bethlehem or Nazareth).
Then, citing that touchstone of Bible scholarship, Free Inquiry, he shares the following gem with the reader: Fly suggests that Matthew’s desire to fulfill messianic prophecies (descent from David, birth in Bethlehem) for the benefit of Jewish readers came into headlong collision with Luke’s desire to adapt Christianity for the Gentiles, and hence to press the familiar hot buttons of pagan Hellenistic religions (virgin birth, worship by kings, &c, etc)” (94)?
Evidently, Dawkins has never read the gospels for himself, and is entirely at the mercy of secondary sources from a tabloid rag.
Both the virgin birth and the Davidic descent occur in Matthew and Luke alike, while the visitation of the Magi only occurs in Matthew. Hence, in singling out what is supposedly distinctive to Luke, we are given two examples which are common to both and another example which is distinctive to Matthew.
After that delicious display of irremediable incompetence, Dawkins then has the impudence to ask: “Do these people never open the book that they believe in the literal truth? Why don’t they notice those glaring contradictions?” (94).
Well, not only do we read the book in question, unlike Dawkins, but we also read standard commentaries, monographs, and reference works where these objections are thoroughly canvassed. I myself responded to these objections in my review of TET.
He also refers the reader to Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus “which unfolds the huge uncertainty befogging the New Testament texts” (95).
But there are several problems with this claim:
i) If the NT text is hugely uncertain, then any candidates for “glaring contradictions” are hugely uncertain as well. After all, an alleged contradiction would only be as good as the textual tradition which underwrites the contradiction in question.
ii) For that matter, if the gospels contains so many “glaring contradictions,” and scribes felt so free to tamper with the original, why didn’t they smooth over the glaring contradictions?
iii) Finally, Dawkins has evidently never bothered to read the many devastating reviews of Ehrman:
He then makes the silly claim that “The four gospels that made it into the official canon were chosen, more or less arbitrarily, out of a larger sample of at least a dozen including the Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Nicodemus, Philip, Bartholomew and Mary Magdalene” (95).
But this disregards chronology, geography, and textual criticism. The apocryphal gospels are demonstrably later than, and imitative of, the canonical gospels.
They clearly postdate the apostles or contemporaries of Jesus or contemporaries of the apostles.
They are therefore pseudonymous. Indeed, liberals generally admit that apocryphal gospels are pseudonymous.
For his part, Dawkins, in line with other liberals, claims that the canonical gospels were originally anonymous.
But that’s inconsistent. Why would the canonical gospels be anonymous while the apocryphal gospels are pseudonymous?
The canonical gospels were written by known authors to known churches. It’s not like a message in a bottle.
From their original point of origin they were more widely disseminated.
The early church accepted the canonical gospels because it knew where they came from.
Unlike modern mass publication, publishing a book in NT times involved a system of patronage.
Dawkins simply disregards standard scholarship on the canonicity of the NT and related issues. He never engages the contrary evidence. Cf.:
E. E. Ellis, The Making of the New Testament Documents (Brill 2002)
H. Gamble, Books & Readers In the Early Church (Yale 1995)
M. Hengel, The Four Gospels & the One Gospel of Jesus Christ (Trinity 2000).
B. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament (Oxford 1987)
A. Millard, Reading & Writing in the Time of Jesus (Sheffield 2000)
D. Trobisch, The First Edition of the New Testament (Oxford 2000)
Dawkins then says that “Much of what they wrote was in no sense an honest attempt at history but was simply rehashed from the Old Testament, because the gospel-makers were devoutly convinced that the life of Jesus must fulfill Old Testament prophecies” (96-97).
But a couple of pages before, he cited Gillooly’s claim that “all the essential features of the Jesus legend, including the star in the east, the virgin birth, the veneration of the baby by kings, the miracles, the execution, the resurrection and the ascension are borrowed—every last one of them—from other religions already in existence in the Mediterranean and Near East religion” (94).
So which is it? Either “much of what they wrote” is a rehash of the OT scriptures or else “all of the essential features of the Jesus legend” are a rehash of extrascriptural sources.
It can’t very well be both, although both could very well be wrong.
And how do parallels with OT prophecy disprove the NT?
Dawkins is so hostile to the Bible that he doesn’t bother to think through the issues for himself. Instead, he grabs on to any club he can get his hands on, even if he ends up giving mutually exclusive theories of how the gospels were written.
He also cites A. N. Wilson on Isa 7:14 & Mt 1:23. But let’s keep several things in mind:
i) Wilson is not a Bible scholar. He’s just popularizer.
ii) N. T. Wright devoted a whole chapter to dismantling Wilson in his Who was Jesus? (Eerdmans 2001), chap. 3.
As usual, Dawkins only reads what he wants to read. He only reads on side of the argument. He ignores the counterargument.
iii) He also disregards the literature on Isa 7:14. Even a fairly liberal writer like Brevard Childs admits that, “apart from the controversial reference in Prov 30:19, the women in all the other references to ‘almah do actually appear to be virgins (e.g., Gen 24:43; Exod 2:8; Ps. 68:26). It is very unlikely that a married woman would still be referred to as an ‘almah,” Isaiah (WJK 2001), 66.
iv) The overall sense of the passage also turns on the meaning of a “sign” in Isaiah, as well as the meaning of “almah.” An ordinary birth would hardly qualify as a divine prodigy or portent.
Dawkins also refers the reader to G. A. Wells.
A couple of points:
i) Notice, once more, his reliance on dilettantes like Wilson and Wells. Wells is a German teacher. He’s not a Bible scholar, or classicist, or student of ANE language and literature.
The fact that Dawkins has take refuge in such unscholarly sources to make his case only serves to prove what a weak hand he has.
ii) The eccentric position of Wells regarding the nonexistence of Jesus has been scrutinized by several scholars, viz.
R. T. France, The Evidence for Jesus (IVP 1986)
R. van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament (Eerdmans 2000)
Finally, Dawkins refers to Robin Lane Fox. This calls for a few comments:
i) In the preface, Fox makes the following admission: “I write as an atheist, but there are Christian and Jewish scholars whose versions would be far more radical than mine. They will find this historian’s view conservative, even old-fashioned,” The Unauthorized Version (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), 7.
Two things stand out in this statement:
a) As an atheist, he must say that certain Scriptural events didn’t happen because they couldn’t happen. If you’re an atheist, then, by definition, any supernatural event recorded in Scripture is a nonevent—a legend.
So this is not a historical question, but a metahistorical question.
b) Even so, he often affirms the historical value of the Bible. And that’s because, unlike charlatans like Wilson and Wells, Fox is a bona fide scholar.
One of the ironies of Bible criticism is that secular historians outside the field of Bible criticism often arrive at more conservative conclusions than do the Bible critics.
This is due, in part, to the fact that historians work with primary sources, whereas Bible critics often focus their attention on various literary theories and simply dialogue with their fellow Bible critics.
ii) Here are some examples of Fox’s view of the NT:
“Mark’s authorship was an early tradition which might be correct; John’s may very well be right (the beloved disciple was, I believe, the author), and so long as the third Gospel is credited to a companion of Paul, it is not too important whether we call him Luke or not” (129).
“Many readers and scholars would find the fourth Gospel (John’s) most easy to classify: they treat it almost entirely as unhistorical, viewed simply as a record…However, I believe that it is historically the most valuable” (205).
“When early Christians do express an opinion on this Gospel, they all agree with this view: I believe that they are right, and that their reading is the one valid explanation of this odd group of allusions. If so, they fourth Gospel rests on an excellent primary source: a disciple who was very close to Jesus, who reclined beside him at the Last Supper, who saw into the empty tomb” (205).
“His [i.e. the author of the Fourth Gospel] understanding of Jewish practices also suggests an informed Jewish milieu. He knows that big water-pots of stone were used for baths of purification, that Tabernacles and Encaenia were major festivals in Jerusalem, that circumcision was not to be done on the Sabbath. His account of Jesus’s arrest was circumstantial; he knew details of the high priests; unlike the other Gospellers, he assumed that Jesus went to and fro to festivals in Jerusalem during the hear (we can see from Josephus that such pilgrimages, even from Galilee, were nothing unusual). He gave small details of place, time and distance: the pool of Siloam; the twelve hours in the Jewish day; the distance from Bethany to Jerusalem. He puzzled his readers with his ‘pool’ in Jerusalem and its ‘five porticoes,’ until the pool of Bethesda with its two basins, pillars on four sides and a fifth in between was found by archaeologists” (206; cf. 246).
“Those who divide Acts’ author from Paul’s company have produced no other valid explanation of the first-person plurals which he used at odd moments in describing Paul’s career…I regard it as certain, therefore, that he knew Paul and followed parts of his journey…He wrote the rest of Acts from what individuals told him and he himself had witnessed, as did Herodotus and Thucydides” (210).
Dawkins likes to cite the sceptical bits of Fox, while passing over this other material in silence. But if our knowledge of the historical Christ were based on nothing other than the Gospel of John and the Book of Acts, that would still yield a high Christology.
Moving along, Dawkins attacks Pascal’s Wager. Like most critics, I think he misconstrues the Wager.
As I understand Pascal:
i) The Wager is not an argument for God’s existence. It isn’t a substitute for faith or evidence.
ii) Rather, it is, in part, a way of limiting the options by narrowing the search parameters.
iii) Moreover, it is also, in part, a way of bestirring the spiritually complacent from their complacency.
iv) Furthermore, it’s a way of moving believers into a faith-inducing environment. As an Augustinian Catholic, Pascal believed in the sacraments as a means of grace.
Although being in church is no guarantee of salvation, being outside the church is a guarantee of damnation (extra ecclesiam nulla salus).
v) The Wager was not the only arrow in Pascal’s quiver. If you read the Pensées, he also has number of conventional arguments for Christianity and counterarguments against rival religious claims.
Finally, Dawkins asks, "Suppose the god who confronts you when you die turns out to be Baal”?
A couple of problems:
i) Is the evidence for the existence of Baal comparable to the evidence for the existence of Yahweh?
ii) Since Dawkins doesn’t believe in the existence of Baal, why does he raise an objection that is predicated on a premise which he himself does not take seriously?
He then attacks Bayesean arguments by attacking one particular author of one particular book. But is this the best representative of Bayesean-style apologetics?
Wouldn’t Richard Swinburne be a more obvious candidate? And while he nips at the ankles of Swinburne in the course of his book, he doesn’t begin to mount a systematic attack.
Finally, as a lead-in to the next chapter, he says “the whole argument turns on the familiar question ‘Who made god?’ which most thinking people discover for themselves. A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right” (109).
He paraphrases this objection throughout the course of the book. Indeed, he’s been recycling this stale old argument ever since The Blind Watchmaker.
He acts as if this is his trump card to trounce the argument from design. But for reasons already stated, it’s a losing hand:
i) The objection fails to distinguish between abstract complexity and concrete complexity.
A concrete object is complex in the sense that it is a spatiotemporal composite. It’s composed of smaller parts or units, and it’s spread out over time.
Even if it were spatially indivisible, it would remain temporally divisible.
But let’s take an abstract object like the Mandelbrot set. Is this object simple or complex?
Well, it’s ontologically simple in the sense that it’s indecomposable. It’s only one substance, and that substance is spatiotemporally indivisible, for it subsists outside of time and space.
It doesn’t come into being or cease to be. It has no duration. It occupies no volume of space or corner of the universe.
Yet, at another, conceptual level, the Mandelbrot set is infinitely complex, given its infinite, self-similar iterations.
Considered as a system of internal relations, the Mandelbrot set is a complex object, but metaphysically speaking, it’s a simple object.
ii) It is also simple in the sense that “this structure is defined by a mathematical rule of particular simplicity,” R. Penrose, The Road to Reality (Alfred Knopf, 2005), 16 (cf. 83-85).
iii) Finally, as I’ve also mentioned, Dawkins continues to confound syntactic simplicity and ontological simplicity.
In classical Christian theism, God is not a concrete object. He doesn’t subsist in time and space.
Rather, he subsists outside the space-time continuum.
Indeed, in classical Christian theism, God is the exemplary source of abstract universals and other abstract objects—as well as the creative source of concrete particulars, which exemplify abstracta.
Now, it’s quite possible that Dawkins would take issue with my definition of abstract objects. But he doesn’t even address the question, much less present an alternative ontology.
These are hardly issues that can be passed over in silence. If Dawkins is going to trumpet the rational superiority of his secular outlook, then he needs to provide detailed answers to basic philosophical questions. Rhetorical swagger doesn’t do the job.
“The answer is that natural selection is a cumulative process, which breaks the problem of improbability up into small pieces…In Climbing Mount Improbable, I expressed the point in a parable…The absurd notion that such complexity could spontaneously self-assemble is symbolized by leaping from the foot of the cliff to the top in one bound. Evolution, by contrast, goes around the back of the mountain and creeps up the gentle slope to the summit: easy!” (122).
But there are several problems with this parable:
i) To compare natural selection to the gravity-defying process of self-levitation uses an unbelievable parable to illustrate an unbelievable process.
Far from simplifying the problem, all he’s done is to graphically illustrate the counterintuitive logic of self-organization.
ii) The parable also falls apart at key points of comparison. In mountain climbing, the hiker is one thing while the mountain is another.
But in naturalistic evolution, the organism is both the hiker and the mountain. It must bootstrap its own ascent. And the thing to be ascended is itself, in ascending stages of complexity.
iii) Another problem is that Dawkins is substituting an illustration for an argument. The parable is an argument from analogy minus the analogy.
He draws a pretty picture for the reader, but how does this correspond to a real life situation?
iv) It isn’t merely intelligent design theory which takes issue with his “simple,” and “effortless” version of naturalistic evolution.
There was a bitter debate between the Stephen Gould and the Dawkins’ epigones over the viability of this model:
Yet another relentless critique was provided by David Stove, the Australian philosopher. Cf.:
Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity, and Other Fables of Evolution (Encounter Books 1995).
This is all the more striking when you consider that both men shared Dawkins’ secular outlook and evolutionary worldview.
“A cataract patient with the lens of her eye surgically removed can’t see clear images without glasses, but can see enough not to bump into a tree or fall over a cliff…51 per cent of a wing could save you if you fall from a slightly taller tree…The forests are replete with gliding or parachuting animals illustrating, in practice, every step of the way up that particular slop of Mount Improbable” (123-124).
“By analogy with the trees of different height, it is easy to imagine situations in which half an eye would save the life of an animal…In Climbing Mount Improbable, I devoted a whole chapter each to the eye and the wing, demonstrating how easy it was for them to evolve by slow (or even, maybe, not at all that slow) gradual degrees, and I will leave the subject here” (124).
“The fact that so many people have been dead wrong over these obvious cases should serve to warn us of other examples that are less obvious, such as the cellular and biochemical cases now being touted by those creationists who shelter under the politically expedient euphemism of “intelligent design theorists’” (124).
It’s been a few years since I’ve read his earlier book, but his summary confirms my recollection. There were several basic problems:
i) Notice how he uses a top-down process to illustrate a bottom-up process. In the case of a cataract patient, you begin with a fully functioning eye, fully adapted to the rest of the body, and then you remove one part (the lens), resulting in a degree of visual impairment.
But to compare the dimished function of a fully developed organ with the limited function of an underdeveloped organ involves a profoundly equivocal analogy.
ii) A better analogy would not be a bird with half a wing, but a bird with a broken wing—which is worse than useless.
iii) There is a tradeoff between one design and another. A flying squirrel is a compromise. It cannot fly, but it can glide. So it cannot exploit the full advantages of flight.
On the other hand, it can use all four limbs like an ordinary land animal, whereas, in the case of a bird, two of its four limbs are co-opted for flight, while the other two limbs are also adapted to flight (except in the case of water fowl, where you have a different sort of specialization—like webbed feet).
A flying squirrel can use all four limbs to run, climb, and grasp in a way that a bird cannot. So each design has its compensations.
But what about a hypothetical intermediate which lacks the compensatory benefits of either design? It can’t quite fly, and it can’t use all four limbs like an ordinary land animal? Is that a viable intermediate? Is that a survival advantage?
iv) Notice that he doesn’t document the transition “every step of the way” from the fossil record.
v) Notice, too, that he doesn’t document this stepwise transition by actually modeling a continuous series of viable intermediates—complete with simultaneous mutations. He doesn’t solve any of the bioengineering problems with working models.
All we got in his earlier book was a mix of fanciful guesswork along with a lot of padding from computer simulations. So he’s telling us rather than showing us.
vi) Without (iv), we have no hard evidence that it did happen, and without (v), we have no hard evidence that it could happen.
So we could reverse his verdict: The fact that Dawkins is dead wrong over these obvious cases should serve to warn us of other examples that are less obvious, such as the cellular and biochemical cases now being touted by those Darwinians who shelter under picturesque parables, just-so stories, and virtual reality.
“Searching for particular examples of irreducible complexity is a fundamentally unscientific way to proceed” (125).
The problem with this charge is that Dawkins, in his own books, feels free to cherry-pick isolated examples that he happens to believe will best illustrate naturalistic evolution. So why is it illicit for the ID theorist to find examples that supposedly illustrate his thesis, but licit for Dawkins to do the same thing in reverse?
“It appeals to the same faulty logic as “the God of the Gaps strategy” (125).
But, once again, when a Darwinian appeals to methodological naturalism, isn’t he resorting to a “Godless of the Gaps strategy”?
“If an apparent gap is found, it is assumed that God, by default, must fill it” (125).
This is a demonstrable misrepresentation of ID theory. The ID theorist doesn’t assume anything. Rather, he argues his way to his conclusion.
“It is precisely the fact that ID has no evidence of its own, but thrives like a weed in gaps left by scientific knowledge” (126-26).
A couple of basic problems here:
i) Notice the tendentious assumption that naturalistic evolution holds the copyright on “scientific knowledge,” so that ID is a form of plagiarism.
But both ID and naturalistic evolution appeal to a common body of scientific evidence.
ii) Dawkins also commits a level-confusion by assuming that ID theory and naturalistic evolution are fighting over the same piece of turf. But it isn’t just a matter of squeezing into the cracks of the evidentiary pavement. For there are metascientific issues as well.
On the one hand, the Darwinian appeals to methodological naturalism; on the other hand, a Christian philosophy like Alvin Plantinga offers an internal critique of evolutionary epistemology, viz. Warrant and Proper Function (Oxford 1993).
So the debate goes beyond and below a positivist appeal to the scientific evidence. For there are metascientific questions at issue.
It is utterly illogical to demand complete documentation of every step of any narrative, whether in evolution or any other science” (127).
Yes and no:
i) To the extent that evolutionary theory is underdetermined by the evidence, then it’s just that—a theory rather than a fact.
ii) Of course, many critics of evolution don’t limit their objection to the absence of evidence for evolution, but to the presence of contrary evidence.
iii) There’s nothing inherently wrong with a theory that goes beyond the evidence. But when it does so, it needs to make testable predictions. A theory which is underdetermined by the evidence should function like a research program, proposing experiments which will enable it to uncover more confirmatory or disconfirmatory evidence.
A theory can extend our knowledge beyond the presently available body of evidence if it can make testable predictions. But is Darwinism predictive or retrodictive?
iv) When a theory is underdetermined by the evidence, then it is incumbent upon the theorist to tell the reader how much is theory, and how much is evidence.
Where does the actual evidence leave off and the theoretical interpolations or extrapolations begin?
Moreover, don’t tell us, but show us. Don’t merely summarize the evidence, for any summary is bound to be a theory-laden summary which is reconstructing the evidence according to a theoretical outline.
Instead, show us the raw evidence as it exists in nature. Where did all these bits of evidence come from?
Explain to us what dating techniques were used. Explain what assumptions are feeding into your dating techniques.
Explain how you correlate evidence from one site, which is separated in time and place from another site. How do you classify fossils from disparate sites?
Walk us through the entire process from start to finish.
Maybe I’m just forgetful, but when I read evolutionary writers like Dawkins, Dennett, Eldredge, Futuyama, Gell-Mann, Gould, Kitcher, Lewontin, Mayr, Raup, Maynard Smith, &c., I never see them lay their evidence on the table—spreading it out for all to see—and then connect the dots in public view.
What they do, instead, is to summarize the evidence or characterize the evidence. They talk about the evidence rather than actually showing us the evidence. An interpretive representation rather than a direct presentation.
The reader is never admitted into the smoke filled room where the evidence is cobbled together. Instead, the reader is treated to a press release. A fait accompli.
Apparently, the reader lacks the security clearance to be trusted with direct access to the evidence room. You have to be a thirty-three degree Darwinian to be initiated into the esoterica of the fossil record.
Could this be due to the fact that if we were actually admitted into the evidence room, and allowed to see the evidence, as well as the methodology involved in piecing it together to create an evolutionary trajectory, it would be nine parts conjecture to one part evidence?
“No attempt is made to demonstrate irreducible complexity” (128).
But for reasons already given, no attempt is made by Dawkins to demonstrate naturalistic evolution.
“A. G. Cairns-Smith makes an additional point, using the analogy of an arch…In evolution, too, the organ or structure you are looking at may have had scaffolding in an ancestor which has since been removed” (129).
Dawkins indulges in this bait-and-switch tactic all the time. He begins with a catchy little parable, then analogizes from the parable to a possible, evolutionary pathway.
Time and again the reader is treated to an argument from analogy minus the argument.
If he had the evidence, he wouldn’t need the analogy. And he doesn’t even argue for the analogy.
Instead of using a picturesque analogy to illustrate an argument, the illustration deputizes for the argument.
It’s the same way with the PBS documentary, alluded to above, where computer animation putties over the lacuna in the fossil record.
Dawkins has failed to demonstrate that it actually happened that way, and—what is more—he has also failed to demonstrate that it could have happened that way.
His fanciful yarns and tall-tales don’t solve any bioengineering problems. Where are the working models?
He then brings up the Dover case. To this I’d say a couple of things:
i) His version of events is hardly the only version of events:
ii) It’s rather amazing to see Darwinians turning to the courts. Darwinians are so hostile to theism that they are prepared to forfeit academic freedom and surrender the intellectual autonomy of science.
Does Dawkins really think it’s a prudent idea to leave the definition of true science to the judiciary?
He then discusses a number of “design flaws” in nature. To this I’d say two things:
i) Writers like Denton, Behe, and Wise dispute the flawed character of the candidates.
ii) I’ve been over this ground with Daniel Morgan:
Finally, he says: “The nineteenth century is the last time when it was possible for an educated person to admit to believing in miracles like the virgin birth without embarrassment. When pressed, many educated Christians today are too loyal to deny the virgin birth and the resurrection. But it embarrasses them because their rational minds know it is absurd, so they would much rather not be asked” (157).
But that claim is demonstrably false. If Dawkins sincerely believes this—assuming that he’s not indulging in rhetorical bravo—then it’s because the only “Christians” he happens to know are liberal theologians in the Church of England.
And even in the Church of England there are Evangelical theologians for whom this allegation is false.
Moving along—after dilating on his own pet theory of “religion as a product or something else,” he mentions that “other by-product explanations of religion have been proposed by Hinde, Shermer, Boyer, Atran, Bloom, Dennett, Keleman and others” (184).
It’s obvious that nothing resembling hard science is driving these theories—otherwise you wouldn’t have such a plethora of competing theories.
Rather, unbelievers like Dawkins begin with their secular conclusion, and then shop around for some theory which will yield their foregone conclusion.
And pretty much any theory will do, for all these ersatz theories are retrodictive, having assumed the answer in advance of the evidence. Whatever their starting point, they are pretargeted, one and all, to oh-so coincidentally converge on the very same answer.
That is why Dawkins can be so indifferent to the variety of “by-product” explanations. If he were a serious scientist, he would be concerned about determining which particular theory, if any, was correct.
One fundamental problem with these sociological theories is their extrinsic quality. They represent an outsider’s view of faith.
How many conservative Christians has Dawkins ever interviewed about their faith? You notice that he doesn’t cite any peer-reviewed surveys.
Predictably enough, this is a just a set-up for Dawkins to ride his memetic hobbyhorse for the umpteenth time.
But the late David Stove had some choice words for the pseudoscience of memetics—which, coincidentally, rhymes with dianetics—and enjoys roughly the same scientific rigor:
“Memes” is just the name that Dawkins coined for the things which humans can communicate to one another non-genetically. In fact, Dawkins’s “discovery” of memes satisfies perfectly all the above requirements for a philosophical “discovery,” with just one partial exception. His premise is certainly trivial enough to satisfy most people’s appetite for triviality: but philosophers are rather more exacting in that matter than most people. Dawkins’s premise goes so far as to assert that a certain process actually happens, whereas a typically philosophical premise, such as Plato’s or Kant’s, says no more than something or other is possible.
Yet scientific discoveries, it can hardly be necessary to emphasize, are exactly the opposite of philosophical pseudo-discoveries in every respect. Their premises are many, and none of them trivial: to establish even one of them can easily take years of painstaking experimental work.
Memes are [quoting Dawkins] “living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind, you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn’t just a way of talking—the meme for, say, [Pythagoras’s Theorem] is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous system of individual men…”
I cannot speak for others, but for my own part, it is impossible to read these words without feeling anxiety for Dr. Dawkins' sanity. I try to think of what I, or anyone, could say to him, to help restrain him from going over the edge into absolute madness. But if a man believes that, when he was first taught Pythagoras’s Theorem at school, his brain was parasitized by a certain micro-maggot which, 2,600 years earlier, had parasitized the brain of Pythagoras,…what can one say to him, with any hope of effect? And if a man already believes that genes are selfish, why indeed should he not also believe that prime numbers are sex mad, or that geometrical theorems are brain parasites?
In one of the popular recordings made about twenty years ago by “The Weavers,” the group sang its song but then fell completely silent, until the leader said: “We will now sing the same song again—this time, louder.” This is essentially when Dr. Dawkins has done, in the two books he has published since The Selfish Gene.
D. Stove, Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity, and Other Fables of Evolution, 192,94-95.
We’d add that, since the time of Stove’s original article, Dawkins has continued to emulate the strategy of The Weavers.
Rupert Sheldrake, who has a more distinguished resume* than Dawkins, has also drawn attention to the pseudoscientific character of memetics, as well as pointing out that, if true, this is a double-edged sword which would undercut atheism as easily as theism:
In this book, Daniel Dennett proclaims himself "bright." He is impressed by the success of homosexuals in calling themselves "gay," and, together with the evolutionist Richard Dawkins, he is trying to re-brand atheism.
Atheists used to believe that with the spread of secular education, religion would fade away and science reign supreme. But this has not happened. Breaking the Spell is part of a wave of new books by militant atheists who feel threatened by the power of religion. As part of this campaign, Dawkins presented a series of programs against religion on British television last month, called The Root of All Evil? and promoted by the broadcasters as a "polemic." Dawkins describes Breaking the Spell as "surpassingly brilliant."
Sometimes he is scornful, as when he compares religion to nicotine addiction, echoing Karl Marx's dictum that religion is "the opium of the people," or when he follows Dawkins in treating religious beliefs as "memes" -- defined as "cultural replicators" -- that leap from brain to brain like viruses.
Whatever the benefits of religions, Dennett believes that they arise entirely inside human minds. No spiritual realities exist outside us. He also takes it for granted that the mind "is the brain, or, more specifically, a system or organization within the brain that has evolved in much the same way as our immune system or respiratory system or digestive system has evolved . . . by the foresightless process of evolution by natural selection." He assumes what he sets out to prove.
The central message of this book is that religion is a product of evolutionary psychology, based on aspects of human nature favoured by natural selection over many thousands of years. Dennett proposes a variety of theories:
First, "sweet tooth" theories. We have evolved a receptor system for sweet things, and in a similar way we might have a "god centre" in our brains. Such a centre might depend on a "mystical gene" that was favoured by natural selection because people with it tended to survive better.
Second, religions might be memes that infect our brains. They are not necessarily parasitic, but could be symbiotic, conferring advantages on those who are infected.
Third, religion might be favoured in sexual selection by females. For example, women might have preferred men who demonstrated sensitivity to music and ceremony, thus spreading genes for religious behaviour within the population.
Fourth, religions may be cultural artifacts, like money. They could have evolved because they make social life more harmonious, secure and efficient. Or else they could have evolved because they enable an elite to prey upon the ill-informed and powerless.
Fifth, religions may be rather like pearls, beautiful byproducts that arose in response to irritants, which then captivated human beings for no good reason.
These theories are evidence-free and wildly speculative. By several criteria, they are pseudoscience. Or they are intellectual games. In any case, Dennett goes on to speculate further. For example, in shamanic cultures, there might have been natural selection for a "hypnotizability gene" that affected brain chemistry, making people more prone to suggestion by shamans, and hence more likely to survive ill health because of a greater placebo response.
He also proposes that we have inherited an evolved capacity for romantic love that has been exploited by religious memes, which could "get people to think that it was actually honourable to take offence, to attack all skeptics with fury, to lash out wildly and without concern for their own safety."
Dennett's book was commissioned in the wake of 9/11, and he is preoccupied with the dangers of religious fanaticism. But I wish he had discussed how atheism itself can become fanatical and destructive. The Soviet Union was run by brights. Stalin was an atheist, as were Mao Zedong and the Red Guards in China, and Pol Pot in Cambodia. The bright Red Army Faction in Germany was in the vanguard of modern urban terrorism. Brights are not always benign.
Dennett sees himself as being brave, and imagines that by discussing religion skeptically he risks "getting poked in the nose or worse, and yet I persist." Perhaps he is in danger in the United States, but in Britain, where I live, moderate forms of atheism and secular humanism have long been the standard belief systems among educated people, and are generally uncontroversial, except when promoted too zealously.
It soon becomes clear that Dennett knows very little about religion, apart from stereotypes about fanaticism and credulity. In this field he is an amateur, not an expert. He admits that his research for this book was hurried because of the "urgency of the message." His study of religious experience seems to have been limited to discussions with some of his students at a Tufts University seminar in 2004, an unpublished questionnaire survey and "quite a few" interviews.
His perspective is largely confined to the United States, and to American Protestantism in particular. He seems to know next to nothing about Catholic or Greek or Russian Orthodox forms of Christianity, or about Christian theology, or about Judaism, Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism.
I ought to have been an ideal reader: I am a Christian, an Anglican, not a bright. I am a strong believer in the value of scientific enquiry. I used to be an atheist myself. But I didn't find myself being reconverted by reading Breaking the Spell, and I was put off by Dennett's one-sidedness and dogmatic certainty. His commitment to atheism makes him dismiss out of hand the significance of religious experiences. For example, many people have experienced a sense of the presence of God, or overwhelming love, or a feeling of unity with nature, or visions, or transformative near-death experiences. In the 1970s, the Oxford biologist Sir Alister Hardy initiated a scientific enquiry into religious experiences in Britain, and found that that they were far more common than most atheists -- and even most believers -- had imagined.
Both Dennett and I admire William James, one of the pioneers of psychology, and author of the classic book The Varieties of Religious Experience. James made a serious study of people's accounts of religious experiences, as did Hardy. But Dennett rules all such evidence out of court. Powerful personal experiences "can't be used as contributions to the communal discussion that we are now conducting." He assumes that religious experiences are generated inside the brain, and that they are illusory.
How can Dennett be so sure? In the end, it all comes down to his own beliefs. Bright memes have infected him and taken over his brain. Those memes are now trying to leap from his brain into yours through the medium of Breaking the Spell.
From there, Dawkins moves on to evolutionary ethics. After more playtime in his fertile sandbox of imaginary conjectures, he sums up his argument as follows:
“We now have four good Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or ‘moral’ towards each other: First, there is the special case of genetic kinship. Second, there is reciprocation: the repayment of favours given, and the giving of favours in ‘anticipation’ of payback. Following on from this there is, third, the Darwinian benefit of acquiring a reputation for generosity and kindness. And fourth, if Zahavi is right, there is the particular addition benefit of conspicuous generosity as a way of buying unfakeably authentic advertising” (219-220).
But there are several problems with his fourfold argument:
i) He commits both the naturalistic fallacy and the is-ought fallacy. Simply put, he fails to distinguish between the descriptive task and its prescriptive or proscriptive relevance—if any.
ii) Assuming, for the sake of argument, that evolutionary ethics is on target, what moral code does it underwrite? Cf.:
R. Thornhill et al., A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion (MIT 2000)
D. Peterson & R. Wrangham, Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence (Mariner Books 1997)
iii) Even assuming that evolutionary psychology is correct, once a species evolves to the point of self-awareness, it is then in a position to override its ethical programming.
The very fact that a Darwinian can put this much conscious distance between himself and his evolutionary wiring empowers him to suppress or contravene his instinctual code of conduct.
iii) Dawkins also fails to address the lifeboat scenario, and its real life analogues, wherein altruism comes into conflict with individual self-interest.
At one point he even admits that “selfishness, or free-riding parasitism on the goodwill of others, may work for me as a lone selfish individual and give me personal satisfaction” (231).
Cheating to get ahead can repay rich dividends if you’re smart and cover your tracks.
Time after time in the course of this book, Dawkins overlooks the most elementary objections to his own positions. Objections with which any intellectual ought to be conversant.
“We can no more help ourselves feeling pity when we see a weeping unfortunate (who is unrelated and unable to reciprocate) than we can help ourselves feeling lust for a member of the opposite sex (who may be infertile or otherwise unable to reproduce). Both are misfirings, Darwinian mistakes: blessed, precious mistakes” (221).
By what objective standard does he determine that these Darwinian mistakes are “blessed,” “precious” mistakes?
Note the vicious circularity of his appeal: He attempts to ground ethics in evolution; then he treats certain evolutionary by-products as mistakes or misfirings; then he says these evolutionary mistakes are “blessed” or “precious”?
And why should we feel honor-bound by an evolutionary mistake or misfiring?
He then cites a study in which there was no “statistically significant difference between atheists and religious believers” in dealing with three hypothetical, ethical dilemmas (226).
But what’s the point of this conclusion?
i) To begin with, it’s meaningless to compare religious believers in general with irreligious believers in general, as if all religions are interchangeable.
ii) Are these nominal or devout religious believers?
iii) Laymen may well give the same snap answers to a survey. That’s quite different than the answer that a secular ethicist like Peter Singer might give in contrast to a Christian ethicist like John Frame.
Are we comparing different people, or are we comparing different value-systems?
He then quotes Einstein: “If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed” (226).
i) Dawkins himself had just given some evolutionary arguments which appeal to enlightened self-interest. So who is he to suddenly act as if appeal to self-interest is “positively ignoble” (226)?
ii) Self-interest is not the sum of Christians ethics, but just one element.
iii) Christian ethics is adapted to a fallen world: to sinners. So it’s not supposed to represent an ideal state of affairs. Indeed, its operating premise is just the opposite.
iv) As contingent creatures, we are entirely dependent on God for our being and wellbeing. So there’s nothing unscrupulous about an element of self-interest in personal and social ethics. To the contrary, that’s a pious and humble acknowledgment of our creatureliness.
He then cites Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett on the “fact” that red states are more violent than blue states. But this involves a very sloppy use of statistics:
i) One would have to correlate criminality and religiosity by matching a given criminal or set of criminals with a corresponding religious affiliation.
Is the criminal religious? Is his criminality consistent or inconsistent with his religious identity?
ii) We already know for a fact some of what is fueling higher crime rates. The profile is keyed to social class rather than religion, and to certain lifestyle choices like out-of-wedlock birth, single motherhood, rootless young men, a drug culture, high school drop out rates, as well as a secularized curriculum, to name a few factors.
Since this is all contrary to Christian ethics, it is both unscrupulous and inaccurate to blame it on Christianity.
Finally, and most tellingly of all, Dawkins admits that “it is pretty hard to defend absolutist morals on grounds other than religious ones” (233).
It’s striking that he confines this admission to a single sentence at the tail-end of his chapter. Perhaps he didn’t wish the reader to catch on to the full ramifications of this admission.
But he is admitting that a secular worldview has no room for moral absolutes. And this is consistent with what he’s said elsewhere, viz., “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”
That admission will prove to be very ironic admission indeed when, in the very next chapter, he launches into a moralistic tirade against Biblical ethics.
There are a number of general as well as specific problems with his attack on Biblical morality:
At a general level:
i) Since Dawkins has admitted that there is no basis for moral absolutes in secular ethics, then what yardstick is he using to say that Biblical morality comes up short? A moral relativist is in no position to moralize about Biblical morality.
ii) Not only does he deny moral absolutes, but there’s another problem. There’s his view of human nature:
“For the first half of geological time our ancestors were bacteria. Most creatures still are bacteria, and each one of our trillions of cells is a colony of bacteria.”
“We are survival machines--robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment.”
Given such a degrading view of human nature, what is wrong with rape or murder?
Is it wrong to kill a colony of bacteria? Is it wrong to rape a robotic, blindly-programmed survival machine?
iii) He doesn’t understand the nature of narrative theology. In narrative theology, the historian doesn’t automatically editorialize on every event which he reports. The fact that certain atrocities or immoralities are recorded in the Pentateuch or Historical Books in no way implies authorial approval.
iv) Dawkins also fails to appreciate the relation between the narrative genre and the legal genre. The Pentateuch is a literary unit.
The historical narrative lays a foundation for the subsequent law code. For the Mosaic law code is largely framed in reaction to the social mores of the surrounding pagan nations. Israel, by contrast, is to be a people set apart.
On the one hand, Dawkins begins by citing some atrocities or immoralities in the historical record. And he expresses his extreme disapproval of the conduct recorded therein.
On the other hand, he is equally offended by the Mosaic laws of warfare. Yet the Mosaic laws of warfare are in direct response to the kind of pagan immorality which Dawkins found so utterly intolerable.
But he can’t have it both ways. If he’s disapproving of pagan morality, then he should be approving of the corrective in the Mosaic code. But if he’s disapproving of the Mosaic code, then he should be approving of pagan morality.
v) Dawkins also makes no effort to consider the practical alternatives given the socioeconomic conditions of ANE culture. For example, he’s offended by the legislation governing war brides, but at that time and place where warrior cultures were the norm, with all able-bodied men in uniform, as it were, and with the populace living within fortified cities, what would be the fate of the women once the men were killed in war? Left to themselves, they would be utterly defenseless.
Likewise, you couldn’t very well repatriate enemy combatants, for they would live and breed to fight another day. The choice would either be to execute all enemy combatants or enslave them. Harsh measures for harsh times.
Easy for us to sneer and snipe from the safety of our historical distance, when we have the luxury of other options—and even in our own case, where we are having to fend off the aggressions of a global jihad, we find ourselves returning to sterner measures as well.
At a specific level:
i) There is no reason to assume that the Biblical flood account is literarily dependent on Mesopotamian versions of the flood. If there really was a flood, and if the survivors disembarked in Mesopotamia, as the Bible says, then we’d expect to find extrabiblical traditions of the flood from Mesopotamian literature. This was, after all, a uniquely memorable event.
ii) On Gen 19:7-8, he says “it surely tells us something about the respect accorded to women in this intensely religious culture” (240).
a)“Religious” as in “pagan”? If so, then it does, indeed, tells us about the low view of women in heathendom.
b) There is, however, another possible interpretation. As one commentator has suggested, Lot may be attempting to trap the Sodomites in a legal dilemma. For his daughters were already engaged to be married. To violate a woman who was espoused to another man was a capital offense even in that time and place. Cf. J. Currid, Genesis (Evangelical Press 2003), 1:342.
b) Regarding the fate of Lot’s wife, there is more to the wording, as well as the implicit action, than one nostalgic, backward glance. She didn’t merely look back, but turned back, leaving the trail and abandoning the flight to return home. Cf. J. Walton, Genesis (Zondervan 2001), 479-80.
That would also explain how she was “overcome by the sulfur cloud and eruption associated with the sudden destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah,” ISBE 3:172—much like the victims of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
iii) Regarding the incestuous incident which follows, the narrative is implicitly disproving. That’s why his daughters had to make their father drunk.
Moreover, Genesis was never meant to be interpreted in isolation to the remainder of the Pentateuch. The detailed ban on incest in Lev 20 is in reaction to the very sort of thing we find in Gen 19.
Furthermore, how would you expect his daughters to act? They were products of the pagan culture in which they were born and bred. They reflect their social conditioning.
That’s the whole point of the story. It merely reinforces the lurid immorality of the cities on the plain.
Dawkins is so blinded by his irreligiosity that he’s incapable of reading the account with a modicum of critical sympathy and detachment.
iv) Regarding Jgs 19, he says “this story is so similar to that of Lot, one can’t help wondering whether a fragment of manuscript became accidentally misplaced in some long-forgotten scriptorium: an illustration of the erratic provenance of sacred texts” (241).
a) This is a splendid specimen of Dawkins’ dilettantism. He doesn’t cite any textual critic, such as Emanuel Tov, to justify this speculation. In reading the Bible, he thinks that he can fly by the seat of his pants without bothering to consult any of the standard scholarship. Earlier, he quoted Gore Vidal’s’ dismissive line about a “Bronze Age text” (37).
Very well, then. When dealing with “Bronze Age” literature, you should make some effort to acquaint yourself with Bronze Age literary conventions, Bronze Age socioeconomic conditions, &c.
b) There’s no doubt that Jgs 19 is deliberately allusive of Gen 19. What would you expect? The Bible is, among other things, a literary anthology attesting a continuous literary tradition.
As such, it is full of intertextual, literary allusions as a later writer retells a later event in a way that will evoke the memory of an earlier event. He carries over some of the descriptive language of the earlier account to describe the later event.
The Bible is concerned with patterns. Moral patterns. Historical patterns. Providential patterns. Bible writers write in such a way to trigger past associations. Ditto: Gen 12 & 20.
And since history does, indeed, repeat itself with infinite and minute variation, this is a perfectly accurate way of recording history.
Dawkins is offended by the brutality of Jgs 19. But the Book of Judges is meant to be brutal. It documents a cycle of apostasy and restoration.
v) Regarding Jgs 11, he says, “God was obviously looking forward to the promised burnt offering” (243).
There is nothing in the text to justify that inference. To sacrifice your daughter directly contravenes the law of Moses. And as the Mosaic code also makes clear, not all vows are lawful vows. Some vows are unlawful vows. An unlawful vow is nonbinding.
“Do these people who hold up the Bible as an inspiration to moral rectitude have the slightest notion of what is actually written in it? The following offences merit the death penalty, according to Leviticus 20: cursing your parents; committing adultery; making love to your stepmother or your daughter-in-law; homosexuality; marrying a woman and her daughter; bestiality (and, to add injury to insult, the unfortunate beast is to be killed too). You also get executed, of course, for working on the Sabbath” (248).
Several issues command our attention:
i) Notice that Dawkins never bothers to explain what is wrong with any of these injunctions. Where is his argument against them? Where is his argument for his own alternative?
Instead, it’s a form of disproof by quotation, as if merely quoting something you don’t like is enough to bring it into discredit.
But this is a completely anti-intellectual move. He merely assumes what he needs to prove.
ii) He reveals more about his own morality than he does about Biblical morality. Does he approve of bestiality? Does he approve of a man who has sex with his daughter-in-law?
Earlier, he was very disapproving of incest in the case of Gen 19. Now he’s equally disapproving of a ban on incest.
iii) What about adultery? Does he disapprove of the penalty because he thinks it’s wrong? Or because he wouldn’t like to be executed if he were caught cheating on his wife?
iv) What about parental authority? One reason we see so many schoolyard shootings, as well as urban warfare among teenage gang-bangers, is because the grown-ups have abdicated their adult responsibilities.
When young people perceive how many adults in power are weak and irresolute, many of them lose any sense of moral self-restraint and turn to a life of violence—knowing that they can get away with it.
v) The fact that certain penalties are assigned to certain infractions does not automatically mean that such penalties were mechanically enforced. Even the OT distinguishes between penitent sinners (e.g. Lev 6:1-7) and impenitent sinners (e.g. Num 15:30-31). And case law is illustrative rather than exhaustive. It doesn’t cover every conceivable contingency.
So we shouldn’t assume, without further ado, that every capital offense mandated the death penalty despite contrition or restitution. As a couple of commentators explain:
“[Milgrom] argues that any intentional sin could be reduced to a sin of ignorance by genuine repentance. Whenever a guilty person too this path, he lowered his sin to the level of an unintentional sin and gained the possibility of expiating his wrongdoing through presenting a reparation sacrifice,” J. Hartley, Leviticus (Word 1992), 85.
This may be a bit of an overstatement since it’s hard to believe that every crime, however heinous, was subject to commutation. Nevertheless, it is fair to suggest that Lev 6:1-7 presents a special case of a larger principle.
In discussing NT ethics, Dawkins sprinkles the text with the pejorative word “sadomasochism.” For example: “But now, the sadomasochism. God incarnated himself as a man, Jesus, in order that he should be tortured and executed in atonement for the hereditary sin of Adam” (252).
Dawkins then describes this “sadomasochistic” doctrine as “repellent.”
Well, assuming, for the sake of argument, that the atonement is “sadomasochistic,” why would a moral relativist and sexual libertine like Dawkins find that “repellent”?
This is especially ironic considering the fact that he attacks the Bible for being “homophobic.” But homosexuals often engage in sadomasochistic behavior. That’s a fixture of the homosexual lifestyle.
Does he find homosexual sadomasochism “repellent”?
Since God the Father and God the Son are both consenting adults, then even if we accepted the way in which Dawkins has chosen to characterize the atonement, how would that be repellent?
One is puzzled by Dawkins’ Victorian prudery. He really needs to rid himself of these schoolmarmish hang-ups and inhibitions about the atonement.
He also says that “As Geza Vermes makes clear in The Changing Faces of Jesus, original sin itself comes straight from the Old Testament my of Adam and Eve” (251).
It’s amusing to compare this statement with the counter-claim of Loftus, citing Marcus Borg and Claus Westermann: “We simply do not find anywhere in the OT where the origin of evil and sin is traced back to the transgression of Adam and Eve in the Garden…the teaching of the Fall and of original sin rests on the late Jewish Interpretation (of Edras 7:118). It has no foundation at all in the narrative,” J. Loftus, Why I rejected Christianity (Trafford 2006), 154-55.
Continuing with Dawkins: “What kind of ethical philosophy is it that condemns every child, even born it is born, to inherit the sin of a remote ancestor?” (251).
Other issues aside, we could pose the same question to Dawkins: What kind of ethical philosophy is it that says “the first half of geological time our ancestors were bacteria. Most creatures still are bacteria, and each one of our trillions of cells is a colony of bacteria”?
And what kind of ethical philosophy is that that says, “We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes”?
I’d add that Dawkins makes a big deal about the virtue of altruism. But in altruism, a second party is the beneficiary of what was done by the first party. And if that is ethical, then why doesn’t the reasoning work in reverse: a second party is liable to the bad fortune of the first party? Isn’t that how inheritance works—both in law and evolution?
Dawkins then asks, “if God wanted to forgive our sins, why not just forgive them” (253)?
For the same reason we don’t just forgive Hitler or Stalin. It would be unjust.
He tht says “progressive ethicists today find it hard to defend any kind of retributive theory of punishment” (253).
But this is opinion-mongering in lieu of argument. And how would a “progressive ethicist” attack the principle of attribution?
Would he say that retribution is morally wrong? And by what moral benchmark does he deem it to be wrong? Wrong in the sense of unjust or unfair? In what sense is retribution unjust? To the contrary, retribution involves the principle of strict justice. Nothing could be more fair. Nothing could be as fair. Indeed, nothing else could even be fair.
In passing, he cites Hartung’s claim that the 144,000 in revelation refers to the Jews. But as commentators like Beale explain, that interpretation is acontextual.
Moving along, he takes up the case of Kurt Wise, as a textbook example of how “fundamentalism” represents the “subversion” of science.
Here is Dawkins version of events:
“He obtained a real degree in geology at the University of Chicago, followed by two higher degrees in geology and paleontology at Harvard (no less) where he studied under Stephen Jay Gould (no less). He was a highly qualified and genuinely promising young sciencetist, well on his way to achieving his dream of teaching science and doing research at a proper university.”
“Then tragedy struck. It came not, from the outside but from within his own mind, a mind fatally subverted and weakened by a fundamentalist religious upbringing that required him to believe that the Earth—the subject of his Chicago and Harvard geological education—was less than ten thousand years old. He was too intelligent not to recognize the head-on collision between his religion and his science, and the conflict in his mind made him increasingly uneasy. One day, he could bear the strain no more, and he clinched the matter with a pair of scissors” (284).
After a few more summary sentences, Dawkins quotes Dr. Wise in his own words.
But let’s compare what comes before. Just compare Dawkins’ summary with what Wise actually said about his crisis of faith:
“Finally, one day in my sophomore year of high school, when I thought I could stand it no longer, I determined to resolve the issue. After lights were out, under my covers with flashlight in hand I took a newly purchased Bible and a pair of scissors and set to work,” In Six Days, J. Ashton, ed. Master Books 2003), 353.
Notice how Dawkins has completely rewritten the timing of the event. According to Dawkins, his crisis took place after Wise went all the way through undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate studies.
Now, Dawkins is getting his information from the same book I have (mine is a later printing).
Yet, when you go back and read Wise in his own words, his crisis of faith took place in high school, and he resolved the crisis well before he ever entered college.
Apparently, Dawkins is assuming that the average reader of The God Delusion is already in his camp, and would therefore have no incentive to go back and check his story against the primary source. So he can get away with deliberately lying about the timing of the event, turning it completely around.
And I guess he did that because his version is so much more dramatic. In his doctored version of the record, he has Dr. Wise suddenly turn his back on all the world-class education he had just received.
This then enables him to say that he is “hostile to religion because of what it did to Kurt Wise” (286).
Since the actual sequence doesn’t deliver the same punch, Dawkins simply and brazenly rewrote the record to make it say what he needed it to say to agree with his foregone conclusion. And such a falsification of the public record is just an extension of his scientific methodology.
He then proceeds to quote some fideistic sounding statements by Wise. But this is equally misleading, for it hardly represents his overall position. For one thing, here is some of what Wise also said in a recent interview:
“I’m a scientist. I look at the data. But what the Bible actually says is also data to me,” Dr. Wise told Chalcedon recently.
“I’ve never met a scientist who didn’t try to make the evidence fit his presuppositions,” Dr. Wise said. “We just don’t let ourselves exist in an unbiased state. All human beings have presuppositions, and scientists are human beings.”
Charles Darwin, author of the theory of evolution, was no different, Wise said. “Darwin had a background in theological studies, but then he had a child die and it shook his faith. He became embittered toward God, and he was predisposed to explain the natural world without reference to God. He really was looking for a way to explain it without invoking God.”
The same holds true for Darwin’s successors today, he said.
“They all believe in evolution, and try to interpret their data in light of it. Take the recent discovery of soft, elastic tissue inside the leg bone of a Tyrannosaurus rex. You suggest they subject it to a Carbon-14 test [a means of determining the age of matter that was once alive; it is only applicable over a range of thousands of years, not millions]. Obviously, they won’t. They won’t even look at the data in a way that violates their assumption that it’s millions of years old.”
“The truth is that so far neither creationism nor evolution can provide these explanations. In neither case does the theory predict anything.
“When I was in the secular universities,” he said, “and my professors wanted to understand me, I told them that the Bible was my evidence: I believed in the Biblical account of the Creation.
“All my secular professors were okay with that.
In addition, Wise doesn’t believe that his dating scheme precipitates a “head-on collision between his religion and his science. To the contrary, Kurt Wise has published two books in which he defends creationism on scientific grounds:
K. Wise, Faith, Form, & Time (B&H 2002)
_____. Something from Nothing (B& H 2004)
So what we actually witness in this chapter is not the subversion of science by fundamentalism, but the subversion of truth by secular scientism.
Finally, is it true that a traditional dating scheme for biblical chronology will preposition our faith for a head-on collision with science?
One of Dawkins’ problems is that he’s such a very shallow thinker.
Whether the Biblical timeline is at odds with the timeline of modern science depends on your philosophy of time. In particular, the measurement of time.
For this is ultimately a question of chronometry. And that, in turn, goes to the question whether time has an intrinsic metric.
But suppose I subscribe to metric conventionalism. This goes all the way back to Poincaré, and continues to be enjoy the intellectual sponsorship of such distinguished philosophers of science as Reichenbach, Grünbaum, Lucas, and Swinburne. As one temporal theorist summarizes the issues:
“We take it for granted that the intention of the clock is to measure time. But perhaps this familiar notion is, after all, a rather peculiar one when we pause to scrutinize it. What is it for an instrument to measure time?” R. LePoidevin, Travels in Four Dimensions (Oxford 2003), 3.
“What, according to conventionalism, is a matter of convention is not merely the choice of unit, but whether two given successive intervals of time are of the same duration or not” (6).
“The second point against the conventionalist—tht taking the laws of motion as objectively true entails objectivism over metric—is more significant, but the conventionalist can simply reply that the laws of motion themselves are simply conventions. They are undoubtedly extremely useful, in that they correctly predict the observed outcome of our experiments with motion, but their usefulness does not entail their truth” (11).
On this view, whether we say the world is 6000 years old or 16 billion years old is merely an artifact of our temporal metric, which is extrinsic to time, and varies from one metrical system to another.
The dispute between metrical conventionalism and metrical objectivism cannot be adjudicated by experimental data since the interpretation of the relevant data depends on how we measure it, which circles back to the original dispute.
This is a well-known debate. It’s been around since the turn of the 20C. And it has eminent proponents on either side. If Dawkins were a genuine intellectual, instead of a poseur, he would grapple with these issues.
Moving along, he uses the fate of Alan Turing as a club to bash the religious right. But that raises several questions:
i) This is a sterling example of how political correctness trumps secular science. In general, Dawkins treats science as the touchstone of truth. And he’s made his name as a militant Darwinian. He also made a name for himself with his “selfish gene” theory.
So what is his Darwinian justification for homosexual rights? Homosexuals are not vehicles for transmitting their genetic information to the next generation.
Logically, then, if Dawkins were true to his own core values, he would oppose sodomy. So it’s striking to see his own priorities on public display. When push comes to shove, he’s prepared to jettison evolutionary ethics for radical chic respectability.
ii) He makes the case that Turing did more to win WWII than Eisenhower or Churchill. No doubt there’s something to be said for that propositions.
But, of course, in examples like this it’s easy to come up with counterexamples, such as the part played by homosexual double agents like Kim Philby, Antony Blunt, and Guy Burgess in sabotaging the Cold War effort.
iii) Even under a theocracy, there is more to sin than punishment. There is room for forgiveness in case of contrition.
Christianity is, after all, a redemptive religion—as was OT Judaism.
iv) At the same time, we must also recall that it isn’t always possible to be equally merciful to all parties concerned. To be merciful to the victimizer is merciless to the victim. The victim is entitled to justice. And that, in turn, will serve as a deterrent to further victimization.
Dawkins shows his true colors on the subject of pedophilia:
“Others have noted that we live in a time of hysteria about pedophilia, a mob psychology that calls to mind the Salem witch-hunts of 1692…It is clearly unjust to visit upon all pedophiles a vengeance appropriate to the tiny minority who are also murderers” (316).
You could not have a more graphic example of secular ethics or moral relativism than in Dawkins’ indulgent attitude towards pedophilia.
“Pedophilia” is frequently used in the liberal media as a euphemism or codeword for homosexuality. It’s a way of deflecting attention away from the real source of the problem.
Because Dawkins is an advocate of homosexual rights, he wants to make room for the seduction of minors. Presumably he would favor lowering or abolishing the age of consent. How else can you explain his remarks?
As long as a “pedophile” doesn’t actually “murder” his victim, anything goes.
He follows this up with the following claim: “Once, in the question time after a lecture inn Dublin, I was asked what I thought about the widely publicized cases of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland. I replied that, horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place” (317).
This is another red-letter instance of Dawkins’ fanatical secularism. I’m no friend of popery, but there are plenty of emotionally well-adjusted Roman Catholics out and about.
To say that a Catholic upbringing is more harmful than sexual molestation is patently false and morally outrageous. If it really came down to a choice between Catholicism and atheism, then Catholicism would come out on top. (Thankfully, that’s not the only choice.)
In his final chapter, Dawkins regales the reader with yet another bedtime story about the origin of religion. In marshalling the scientific evidence, he takes the reader on a tour of Winnie the Pooh, Pekinese dogs with paedomorphic faces, Evelyn Waugh, the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, and so on.
I’m just waiting to see if any reviewer in the scientific establishment is going to draw the line with Dawkins’ habitual quackery. How much junk science is too much junk science? Is there any limit on what Dawkins can get away with before his colleagues lock the crazy old aunt of militant Darwinism in the attic for the good of their own reputations? Or does he really speak for them?
Incidentally, Dawkins is not the only Darwinian to offer nursery rhymes in lieu of real evidence. Consider some of what one reviewer had to say about Stephen Jay Gould’s magnum opus:
The emphasis on punctuated equilibrium opens the way for The Structure of Evolutionary Theory's most audacious proposal—the idea of species selection. Gould sees punctuated equilibrium as a prerequisite for species selection because it bestows on species some of the properties inherent in individuals. Thus Gould envisages a sort of life cycle of species: born via punctuated equilibrium, they live a life in mature (stable) form, and then die through extinction. Species selection is a central aspect of the book, and by it Gould means that species as a whole—not just individuals or populations—are being acted on by natural selection.
Gould admits that few (if any) examples of species selection have come to light—but argues that this is because scientists have not looked hard enough. Consequently we must make do with hypothetical examples, of which the author gives us one of his own making. It has to do with variability within species, which Gould sees as the best example of a "species character." This is a necessary prerequisite of species selection since otherwise natural selection at the level of species would have nothing to act on:
“Suppose that a wondrously optimal fish, a marvel of hydrodynamic perfection, lives in a pond. This species has been honed by millennia of conventional Darwinian selection, based on fierce competition, to this optimal organismic [individual] state. The gills work in an exemplary fashion, but do not vary among individual organisms for any option other than breathing in well-aerated, flowing water. Another species of fish— the middling species—ekes out a marginal existence in the same pond. The gills don't work as well, but their structure varies greatly among organisms. In particular, a few members of the species can breathe in quite stagnant and muddy waters.”
“Organismic selection favors the optimal fish, a proud creature who has lorded it over all brethren, especially the middling fish, for ages untold. But now the pond dries up, and only a few shallow, muddy pools remain. The optimal fish becomes extinct. The middling species persists because a few of its members can survive in the muddy residua. (Next decade, the deep, well-aerated waters may return, but the optimal fish no longer exists to reestablish its domination).”
Finally, he quotes a passage from Steve Grand: “Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when the event took place” (317).
This raises an important question which Dawkins is too incurious to ask. Secularism has that effect. It’s a damper on intellectual curiosity. A sopping, smothering blanket on intellectual curiosity. For certain questions are out of bounds.
But consider the dilemma which this claim poses for physicalism. If mind is matter, and if, in the course of a lifetime, every atom composing my brain is swapped out for another atom, then how is it possible for me to retain the same memories? Assuming that memory is encoded in the architecture of the brain, if there’s a constant turnover at the atomic or subatomic level in the constitution of the brain, then what is there to ground the continuity of our memories?
If you reduce a man to an atomic stream of consciousness, with old atoms flowing out and new atoms flowing in, then personality itself is utterly fluid.
So the final ironic twist in Dawkins’ position is that it leaves his book without author or reader. Barring a basis for personal identity, The God Delusion is a book by no one, to no one, or for no one.
It should be reentitled The Dawkins Delusion, for—from his viewpoint—there is no viewpoint. Personal identity is an illusion. Truly the view from nowhere, as Nagel would say.
Welcome to secular humanism.