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Dawkins on God PDF Print E-mail

given by Peter Bowden

DAWKINS ON GOD An analysis of Richard Dawkins’ arguments behind his assertion that “there is almost certainly no God”.

Richard Dawkins has given us a series of path breaking books from The Selfish Gene onwards that have added immeasurably to our understanding of our genetic past. We may not all be convinced but there is little doubt that his writing has been in the vanguard of a huge body of understanding on our lives and the societies in which we live. The God Delusion, however, is a sad decline from the tours de force of his previous works. Dawkins certainly does put forward a series of well argued, amply illustrated analyses behind his assertion. They are arguments that are widely available, incidentally, in any text on the Philosophy of Religion. It is the near manic digressions of his incessant attacks on his opponents, mainly the Christian Right, which in part explains the dissatisfaction with the book. But the deepest cause of my dissatisfaction is, if in fact his assertions are valid, his inability to examine in any established philosophical sense their impact on the human condition.

Dawkins, on occasions has been described as the ‘world’s best known atheist’. He does examine the philosophical arguments for the existence of God but he dismisses them as “spectacularly weak”. The five “proofs” of Thomas Aquinas for instance, he describes as “vacuous”. Most of us do not know Aquinas in detail, so let me first say that St Thomas (1225 –1274) was Italian, a Catholic priest, and the foremost classical proponent of natural theology, (theology based on reason and ordinary experience). Author of the Summa Theologica, he is considered by many to be the Church's greatest theologian. I will outline Aquinas’ five arguments, the first three of which are built around a common theme.

1. The first is that as we go back in time, we must have had a starter – a prime mover. 2. The second, a minor variation, is that there must have been a cause – a first cause behind existence.

3. The third argument is that there must have been a time when no physical thing existed, but it does now. Something must have caused that change and this we call God. 4. The fourth argument is that we judge all our work “against perfection” and that perfection is God.

5. The fifth is that there must have been a designer – somewhat similar to the Creationist argument of today against which Dawkins rails so frequently The “must have been a beginning” argument, however, is not easily dismissed. I, for one, have a great deal of difficulty in imagining anything that had no beginning. A universe that goes back in time for ever, “an infinite regress” as Dawkins describes it, is not easy to comprehend. He questions why God himself should be immune from having a beginning – a specious argument in my opinion, for the concept of a beginning was only one definition of a God. But he never satisfactorily resolves the issue of a universe that has existed forever.

Dawkins is on safer ground when he questions why this beginning, this original creator, should be the same God to whom we pray in times of need. The concept the all merciful, all forgiving all knowing God of Christianity is excluded from Aquinas’ proofs. One by one, Dawkins dismisses the remaining philosophical arguments for God’s existence.

  • The ontological argument, originating in the 11th Century (St Anselm), and reformulated by Descartes, is on the nature of existence. God is an entity of which nothing greater can be conceived. But a being for which nothing greater can be conceived does not exist in the real world. So God exists! Both David Hume and Immanuel Kant refuted the ontological argument – primarily on the basis that ‘existence’ is not necessarily more ‘perfect’. It should be mentioned incidentally, that Bertrand Russell, admittedly as a young man, did shout his “eureka!”,,,,, that he now understood and accepted the ontological argument. He later recanted.

  • The argument from beauty of soul. Only God can account for the sheer beauty of a Mozart concerto; or the magnificence of the dawn rising over a snow capped mountain. We all can dismiss this argument for it is easy to imagine that to a being from another planet a sense of what is beautiful could be totally different to ours

  • The argument from personal experience. {which Dawkins counters by noting that George W Bush states that God told him to invade
    Iraq}

  • Visions of God, (which Dawkins calls hallucinations). Miracles he has a little more trouble with, for he makes a far from satisfactory explanation of how 70,000 people saw the sun fall in
    Fatima

  • Scientists who concur with evolutionary theory but believe in God. Dawkins claims in fact that very few eminent scientists argue for the existence of God

  • The two bob each way bet – best to believe, for that way you avoid hell, go to heaven. Disbelieve and there is a great empty space. Pascal’s wager, it is called. I suspect that a number of us fall into this camp.

The arguments by Dawkins against a God The arguments against the existence of God in a chapter entitled “Why there is almost certainly no God” are little more than a continuation of his demolition of the arguments for a God, supported by his arguments for evolution. They are not all philosophical arguments but as they form a large part of his book I will outline them briefly:

The improbability argument – essentially the creationist or “intelligent design” argument (which Dawkins calls “creationism in fancy dress”). These arguments are simple – humans are such a collection of complexities that there must have been a designer. Dawkins squashes these arguments by reverting to
Darwin’s theories and by quoting from his own series of books “The Selfish Gene”, “The Blind Watchmaker”, “Climbing Mount Improbable” and the “The Extended Phenotype”. Gaps in the fossil record (which Dawkins describes as “utterly illogical”)

The anthropomorphic principle which argues that the start of life on this planet – not the evolution of life but the start - is extremely improbable. Dawkins argues not so if a series of biological factors are met by the position of a planet in its universe. Earth is among those planets with all factors – distance from the sun, gravitational pull and an friendly universe - that could start life. With a billion planets those that could start life numbers in the many hundreds. Dawkins postulates incidentally that there is life on other planets Hitler and Stalin were “avowed atheists” (Irrelevant says Dawkins)

It is at the end of these arguments that Dawkins draws his conclusion. “God almost certainly does not exist” - page 158 of a book with 374 pages So what brought about religion, if there is indeed no God? These are familiar arguments, so it is best only to summarise them. Again, they will be found in any book on the philosophy of religion.

  • Group selection – groups that supported each other due to religious principles, survived (not favoured by Dawkins as an explanation)
  • Religion reduces stress and prolongs life
  • Evolutionary psychology – need for comfort in times of stress
  • Fear of death, and the creation of an ever-lasting life after death by most religions

It is in these passages that Dawkins’ concentration on Christianity and Islam, to the neglect of other religions becomes questionable. The knowledge that some religions do not believe in a God, or have very different concepts of life after death, detract from his arguments

It is interesting to note that Dawkins attributes the development of religion to natural selection. In a difficult passage (pp 191 – 207), he argues a Darwinian cause behind cultural inheritance, passing on the knowledge of the benefits of religion. It is in the build up to this argument that he first presents his idea that we program children to believe in the religion of their parents.

But if there is no God why are we good? This is where we get back to an age old philosophical question. Dawkins again has a Darwinian answer built around the survival benefits of altruism – scratch my back I will scratch yours. He quotes many non-human animal examples in the process. Dawkins moral thinking is to some extent questionable here, for he appears to assume that acting cooperatively automatically leads us to moral behaviour across all aspects of our lives. It is similar to the arguments of the philosophers Richard Joyce, at
Sydney
University, Neil Levy at Melbourne, and Daniel Dennett in the
US; also of scientists and others, Matt Ridley and Marc Hauser, for example. The reason for our altruistic behaviour is one of the most fascinating philosophical questions of our time.

But not all philosophers argue this question in the same way. Peter Singer in A Darwinian Left also points out the Darwinian derivation of cooperation, but he then presents another series of arguments to extend cooperation across the full moral spectrum of altruism. The bible as a source of morality attracts a considerable portion of Dawkins’ ire. As source of our belief in goodness, the bible is certainly no argument for a just and humane God. Dawkins gives example after example of purely evil actions being put forward in the book of God.
Lot offering his daughters for sex and later himself impregnating them, the Levite who gave up his daughter to be gang-raped. (And a gruesomely chilling description that follows from Judges 19) .It needs to be mentioned once again, however, that the extension of his attack on a Christian bible to cover all religions is one of the book’s illogicalities.

Dawkins is certainly on safe ground when he rails against the Judeo/Christian/Islamic religions for causing much of havoc and bloodshed in this world. But his failure to look more closely at these actions is one of the book’s greatest non-sequiturs - He frequently shows his anger in his attacks on religion, particularly the Catholic religion. It is the same anger which showed in his recent TV series – “The Root of All Evil “

The book resorts to vituperation and denigration, an approach that ill suits a professor of science from
Oxford, or any other university. From the “dirty hobnails: of religions creationists “ to those “infantile people who seek a meaningful life through prayer” , the book abounds with epithets and ridicule for Dawkins’ opponents: “failure of imagination, “utterly illogical”, “amazing blindness” “grotesque amplification”, “extreme stupidity” etc etc, describe people with religious beliefs. The belief that God created the world is “a dreadful exhibition of self-indulgent, thought denying, skyhockery”. The illogicalities of Dawkins’ arguments lie in these attacks on religion (which it must be added, occupy almost half the book). If there is no God, then religion and the worship of God are human creations. The beliefs and actions of man- made institutions have little bearing on the arguments of whether God exists or not. Half the book, therefore, has no bearing on Dawkins’ atheistic conclusion.

On p 352, almost at the end, he raises one of the stronger arguments behind peoples’ belief in a God – the need for consolation in times of great personal stress. Many get this consolation by appealing to their God. Dawkins clearly admits this human need, but in the subsequent pages ridicules it, digressing in the process into assisted suicide, the ill-gotten gains of the Catholic Church and remissions from purgatory. The very human need for consolation leads into the remarkable non-sequitur that “maybe life is empty”, a “desert of meaningless”. From there comes one of the more questionable assertions of the book: - that science can fill the gap, that in particular quantum mechanics can supply answers to the many questions we have on our world. He puts forward the theory that there are many universes. In some worlds Schrödinger’s cat is dead, in others it is alive. What we see is what our senses tell us, senses that are themselves a product of evolutionary forces – sight, sound, smell – not capable of detecting the other worlds we live in. Thinking at the forefront of the philosophy of science, tinkering with our philosophies on time, however, do not, in my book, give us meaning.

Dawkins’ inability to give meaning to life; his reliance on the wholly incomplete statements that maybe life is meaningless – and to fill it with the near the incomprehensible science of quantum physics, may help us get our heads around the fact that we had no beginning. But it does nothing to help us move away from “life is empty” A wide range of philosophical thinking can supply meaning. Perhaps Aristotelian ethics does not add a great deal in answering the question of what we are and what we should be, but it was a start, 2500 years ago. Modern philosophers go much further. Peter Singer’s How are we to live? or John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice give us a much greater reason for existence. Even for the accidental unguided products of an evolutionary war zone that we all may be.

There are other approaches to finding support and consolation. The strengths of meditation, the call on our inner self, living the ascetic life, philosophies drawn from other religions and cultures, can give comfort. As can alcohol and drugs. Dawkins’ way, “a good dose of science,” will leave many people unmoved. Can we then sum up then the other half of the book – the half that argues “that there is almost certainly no God”? The answer is simple. The reason, and the only reason why Dawkins says “almost”, is that he cannot prove that there is no God. Just as his opponents cannot prove that there is.

On the balance of probabilities, he argues well for the case that this all knowing, all compassionate listener to our prayers for guidance and consolation is unlikely to exist. If that being does exist , he is most probably not the same as the creator of this universe. For God is not quantum physics. For some of the unanswerable questions, I draw on William Shakespeare:

“There are many more things in heaven and earth Horatiothan are dreamt of in your philosophy”. In short there is much we do not yet understand.

But we have a purpose. Many philosophers, and many others, imperfect that we all are, seek a human capability to achieve a world – one of justice and humanity, one that minimises the harms and wrongs we do, one that tames the survival instincts of our evolutionary past, one without fundamentalism. It is a belief of the religious and non religious, many of whom spend their lives working towards that world That belief, I submit, is a human God.

 
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