Richard Dawkins’s Defective Understanding of Religion

The God Delusion

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A recent post mentioned Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion as an example of the way the New Atheists present their arguments against God’s existence. These New Atheists often show such a disdain for religious thought that they seem not to bother to understand the beliefs that they criticize. As The Nation states in a favorable article about four New Atheist books, including Dawkins’s, “They show little understanding of religion or interest in it.”

That lack of understanding is one of several serious flaws in The God Delusion. Dawkins tries to refute the popular arguments for God’s existence, and presents his arguments against God’s existence. Many of these arguments are misinformed or not logically sound. He makes no bones about his lack of respect for religious people in general: “What works for soap flakes [marketing] works for God, and the result is something approaching religious mania among today’s less educated classes.” That attitude toward the other side of the issue doesn’t seem to encourage thoughtful debate.

Dawkins’s main attempt to prove that the universe was not created by a God is as follows: He proposes that any intelligence complex enough to design anything must have taken a long time to evolve, therefore must appear late in the timeline, and so (voila!) could not have designed the universe in the first place. There are several fairly obvious objections to this reasoning:

1. Many Christians believe (and there is scriptural support) that God created time along with the universe, and is therefore outside of time. This is not an esoteric view, or a new one.

2. Almost no one believes that the creator God is a biological creature subject to natural selection. Most Christians do not believe that God is physical. There is no reason to accept Dawkins’s assumption that any intelligence that exists, anywhere, inside or outside of our universe, must be physical or must have evolved by Darwinian means.

These objections are based on fairly common points of view, yet they are not addressed.

In some cases, Dawkins actually makes his case worse by ignoring the obvious. In a section denouncing the “argument [for God] from personal experience,” he says:

“On the face of it mass visions, such as the report that seventy thousand pilgrims at Fatima in Portugal in 1917 saw the sun ‘tear itself from the heavens and come crashing down upon the multitude’, are harder to write off. […] It may seem improbable that seventy thousand people could simultaneously be deluded, or could simultaneously collude in a mass lie. […] 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.”

Visions are, well, visions – no one claims that they are actually occurring in a physical sense (except perhaps inside the brain). Omitting such an obvious, mainstream interpretation of the event and claiming that those who accept the Fatima event believe that the solar system no longer exists doesn’t help his case.

The passages in TGD that cite scripture are particularly badly reasoned. He omits or misinterprets important passages and does not seem to be aware that the Bible authors recorded some events that they considered bad. For example, he describes a wrenching story in Judges 19 about a woman being raped and murdered in a strange city and uses it as an example of the misogyny of scripture, implying that the Bible condones such actions; however, he strangely omits any mention of the last verse of the chapter, which contradicts his point: “Everyone who saw it [the body of the murdered woman] said, ‘Such a horrible crime has not been committed since Israel left Egypt. Shouldn’t we speak up and do something about this?’” (Judges 19:30, NLT)

Dawkins believes that religion is evil because it sometimes motivates evil actions. Although Dawkins implies that the evils done by various religions are reasons not to believe in any God, he doesn’t believe that the good things done by religions are reasons to believe in God. He says, “When I pressed him [obstetrician Robert Winston], he said that Judaism provided a good discipline to help him structure his life and lead a good one. Perhaps it does; but that, of course, has not the smallest bearing on the truth value of any of its supernatural claims.” I agree – but I would add that the fact that some religious people lead bad lives does not have much bearing on the truth of a religion. It’s not possible to fairly weigh the overall good and evil done as a result of any religion. The question isn’t, “Do I like religion X?” or even “Will religion X make me a better person?” The question is, “What is the truth?”

- Cloud of Witnesses thanks Desmognathus for this guest post.

Desmognathus is a follower of Jesus Christ, a wife, and a mother. She has an M.S. in biology and a Ph.D. in ecology, and enjoys philosophy and theology. She likes rock climbing and dislikes celery.

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