What's Going On In The God Delusion? 

So many people have written about The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, I thought I might be able to pass it by. But it became the topic for a piece I wrote for our local newspaper (to be published in two weeks), and besides that, I've always found Dawkins to be a terrifically entertaining writer. So I bit the bullet, and I've bought the book.

After four chapters (1-3 and 9), I can tell you Dawkins is as engaging a writer as ever, except for this: His arguments in previous books failed in the end. In this one they hardly get started. If his objective was to cause someone like me to reconsider my Christian faith, he has accomplished the opposite. 

Not long before this book came out, Alister McGrath wrote Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life. (I'm in the middle of that book, too.) He likens Dawkins's arguments to schoolboy philosophizing, a description which sadly fits The God Delusion all too well. Dawkins's argument is flawed on two grounds, as far as I've read at this point: worldview blindness and selective handling of facts.

Starting with the worldview blindness: first of all, let it be said again, as many others have, that Dawkins's tone toward religion is mocking, arrogant, and condescending. On page 108 he writes,

"Admittedly, people of a theological bent are often chronically incapable of distinguishing what is true from what they would like to be true."

For those who have followed Dawkins, there surely is not much need for me to prove he takes that attitude. (What is startling is that in their back-jacket blurb, Penn and Teller call the book "compassionate." I guess it's compassionate toward atheists. As Jesus said, though, being nice to your own is hardly a remarkable virtue.)

Dawkins's mockery of religion is based on a distortion of the worst kind, though. It flows from him so effortlessly, I doubt he sees it for what it is. He is so thoroughly imbued with the naturalist/materialist/atheist mindset that he cannot step outside of it to take an honest look at another view. So he criticizes theism from that naturalist position. The question underlying his critique is: based on naturalist assumptions, does theism make sense? It's an illegitimate question, of course, akin to saying, from the standpoint of basketball rules, it makes no sense to kick a soccer ball. Of course theism will not live up to naturalist assumptions, if by naturalist we mean (as Dawkins does) that naturalism is the whole show. Theism doesn't have any desire or need to live up to this; it starts with the opposite belief. And I mean it really does start there. You can read the first three or so words of the Bible (in English) and not find it, but by the time you get to the fourth and fifth words, naturalism is ruled out.

So for example, much of chapter two is taken up with a scientific study that failed to show that heart patients who were prayed for did better than others who did not. Dawkins casts aside with a sneer the altogether sensible response that God may not have wanted to play the researchers' game. Now, from a naturalist/materialist mindset, setting that option aside makes sense. Generally speaking, scientists manipulate experimental variables, and if the different treatment conditions yield similar results, they can say there's no support for the hypothesis that the treatment made a difference. That assumes, though, that we can manipulate God like a drug dosage.

Dawkins laughs at objections pointing out that God is a free agent. He assumes that God would jump on board with such research, as if at last he had his chance to prove his point! What he doesn't see is that viewing God as a free agent is hardly an ad hoc addendum thrown onto the God hypothesis to save face following failure in this research. It's in virtually every chapter of the Bible.

Dawkins approvingly quotes, on page 60,

"Ambrose Bierce's witty definition of the verb 'to pray': 'to ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy."

Well, that's certainly a ridiculous thought, and it would stand as a condemnation of Christianity if it were what Christianity believed. Dawkins, who says his objections are about any God whatsoever, sets up his view of God such that it is an easy target. Never mind that the mysteries and riddles of prayer have been the subject of thousands of books, never mind that those authors have treated the problems of prayer with the respect they deserve; just poke fun at what you think it's all about. Schoolyard philosophizing.

Here's the flaw, again: in the examples I've cited and in other places, Dawkins questions the sensibility of God in light of his nontheistic presumptions. He says in effect, "If there is a God, he doesn't fit my naturalistic conceptions, so there must not be a God." This is trivial. If there is a God, we can be well assured, without Dawkins's help, that he doesn't fit naturalistic conceptions. Theism has to be considered in its own right, on its own terms. If it is internally inconsistent it fails. If it is inconsistent with atheistic presuppositions, that's hardly worth writing a book about, is it?

Dawkins's reckless, practically mindless poking of fun extends to his treatment of the arguments for God. He really doesn't care that he doesn't understand theistic thinking (see also here). (He criticizes the cosmological argument for God, but doesn't realize or doesn't care that he's never heard of the chief current proponent of that argument. His arrogance there is astonishing--but it's also in character.) Other than the argument from design, he presents the theistic arguments virtually in cartoon form. I could do the same for his atheistic arguments. But I wouldn't.

Then there is the way he picks and chooses his facts. He tells of Francis Galton's investigation into whether the British Royal Family was healthier than any other. Presumably there were more prayers said for their health than other families, and Galton wanted to know whether it made a discernible statistical difference. It didn't. Now, Dawkins doesn't tell what the statistical power of that study might have been. Statistical power has to do with the size of a research sample and the magnitude of potential difference between groups in a sample. Small sample sizes have low power; so even if the Royal Family was healthier, there were probably too few members to allow any health differences to show up statistically, especially if the difference was rather small.

This may seem like nit-picking. (Dawkins does admit that Galton's research may have been intended as satire.) Galton, a pioneering statistician, would have known whether his study actually could have detected a health difference if it existed. Dawkins presumably knows that much about statistics, too. He didn't bother to tell us, though. The average reader, not knowing how statistics can be used and misused, would assume that Galton proved that prayer didn't make a difference. A responsible scientist would tell the rest of the story. (We could also question Galton's research assumptions, but I won't go into that here.)

Never mind those statistical niceties, though; maybe I am nit-picking, after all. The overall thrust of this section is that being a Christian, being a praying person, does no one any good. Later in the book he claims that it is positively harmful--equivalent to some of the worst forms of child abuse--to be brought up in a religious home. This is demonstrably false, at least in the case of Christianity. A scientist like Richard Dawkins should look to the data, shouldn't he? But remember what he said: he doesn't need to know what he's talking about. And he doesn't seem to have much patience with contrary opinions, or contrary facts. To paraphrase,

"people of a [certain] bent are often chronically incapable of distinguishing what is true from what they would like to be true."

God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. I hold no ill will against Richard Dawkins, and I wish him long life, health, and much wisdom. But it's grievous to see how this brilliant man has descended to a level at which it is so hard even to take him seriously.

Penn and Teller, in their blurb, say, "If this book doesn't change the world, we're all screwed." They're sure to be disappointed by my response. As of this point in the book, God stands up quite well to Dawkins's arguments. His book is serving quite nicely to strengthen my faith. I don't say that about all atheistically-oriented writings, but this one is a special case. 

Posted: Sun - January 28, 2007 at 03:23 PM           |

© 2004-2007 by Tom Gilson. Permission is granted to quote up to two paragraphs of any blog entry, provided that a link back to the original is included or (in print) the website address is provided. Please email me regarding longer quotes. All other rights reserved.

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