Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion has lit up the blogosphere like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Regardless of what I’m about to say about the contents of the book, I think it’s a great sign that a philosophical book about religion is getting so much play, and I’m happy Richard Dawkins wrote it. I also think it’s great that Dawkins takes a strong atheist position and presents the case for it in the language of logic: premises, proofs, numbered points, summaries, conclusions. I’m not an atheist myself, but I had high hopes when I opened this book, expecting a serious work of philosophy.
I hate to say that I was quickly disappointed. I have a mere bachelors degree in Philosophy and I don’t claim to be an expert (though I know my stuff). But Dawkins isn’t playing by fair rules in his own debate.
When I present a logical argument, I sometimes imagine my elderly professor Josiah Gould (for whom I wrote a thesis on Plato’s Gorgias) evaluating it. I know that Richard Dawkins is from Oxford, but I swear on a stack of Wittgenstein that Professor Josiah Gould would give Dawkins’ book a C- at best, and that’s just because Old Man Gould was a softy at heart.
Dawkins is a decent writer and he has some good ideas, but logic is obviously not his strong point. His “arguments” are not valid arguments at all, and I intend to give three examples below (honestly, I could easily do five more).
His Main Argument Is A Bait And Switch
Chapter Four of The God Delusion is titled “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God”, and consists of a 44 page argument to this effect. The argument is then summarized in six numbered points at the end of the chapter. The basic idea is that there are two models for how things are created: the “skyhook” model (which resembles Creationist or God-based thought) and the “crane” model (in which things already created build themselves out, as in Darwinian evolution). Dawkins attempts to prove that the crane model is much more valid, and then the chapter ends there, numbered points and all, as if he only needs to prove that Darwinism is a better model than Intelligent Design to conclude that there is no God.
This is a classic bait and switch. Nowhere in the chapter does he address the proof he promises in the chapter title, and this is a hole big enough to drive a church bus through. Can Dawkins be unaware that many, many people believe in God and also believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution? 47 pages in this book are devoted to a single argument that does not prove its own promised conclusion, but instead “proves” a much smaller one (and, just for the record, he doesn’t fully prove anything in this chapter at all, though he does land some interesting points).
He Doesn’t Take On The Heavyweights
Preceding the above chapter is Dawkins’ critique of the most well-known arguments and proofs for the existence of God, which he summarizes and dismisses one by one. However, he chooses not to present smart and respectful versions of these arguments, but rather tries to diminish them in the telling. His mocking tone is unfortunate, because it leaves me feeling that he’d rather score cheap points than engage the hardest issues. Personally, I am sure that nobody can prove the existence of God, but I also know that some classical essays on the subject have great literary and metaphorical power.
The famous “ontological argument” for the existence of God is the centerpiece of one of the most well-known essays ever written, Rene Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy. Descartes’ method was to proceed only from the most unquestionable premises possible (this is the source of “cogito ergo sum”, or “I think, therefore I am”, which Descartes’ correctly cites as the only irrefutable first premise in any logical argument). Descartes later takes the questionable step of noting that he, as a thinking thing, seems to have a concept of the possibility that a perfect God exists, and then attempts to establish that it would be impossible for a human being to even imagine a perfect God if a perfect God did not exist. This is Descartes’ version of a famous argument for the existence of god known as the “ontological argument”. It can be easily refuted, but it’s still got some meaning as metaphor, and Descartes’ version of this argument certainly kicks the ass of every other version.
Yet Dawkins presents Saint Anselm’s lame version of the ontological argument, for God’s sake, and doesn’t mention Descartes’ version at all. This is especially puzzling because Descartes is not hard to refute — nobody takes his ontological argument seriously as a logical proof, but many have felt it holds a symbolic power as an expression of innate human divinity, which is why so many still read this essay today. But get this: Rene Descartes does not appear in the book’s index. A chapter on the ontological argument that doesn’t mention Descartes is like, well … it’s like a chapter on California surf bands on the early 1960’s that doesn’t mention the Beach Boys (Anselm being Jan and Dean in this equation).
But this must be a mistake, so let’s move on to Soren Kierkegaard, who is probably one of the most persuasive and widely respected religious philosophers of all time. Kierkegaard was one of the founders of Existentialism, and he wrote many books relating to his own fervent religious beliefs, such as Fear and Trembling and Either/Or. Kierkegaard’s take on the existence of God is entirely confrontational and aggressive: we believe in God, Kierkegaard says, because it is so irrational to do so, and this is all the proof he needs.
So let’s thumb through the index and see what Richard Dawkins has to say about Soren Kierkegaard, easily one of the most famous and widely read philosophers of the last two hundred years. Surprise! He’s not in the index either. Lame, Dawkins … lame.
His Arguments Are Subjective
Subjective opinions are fine, but they don’t have a clear place in logical argument. The preface to this book makes a big statement: imagine the world without religion, Dawkins says, and this is a world where the Twin Towers are restored, a world with “no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no Israeli/Palestinian war, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres …”. I do not agree with Dawkins here at all.
Is religion really at the heart of our world’s hostilities? I don’t believe it. I do not think either Osama bin Laden or George Bush are highly motivated by religion, for instance. It’s pretty clear to me that both are military-minded opportunists who’ve learned to use religion as a tool to stir nationalistic sentiments. Sometimes religious divisions cause wars, but in almost all cases the religious divisions are easy symbols for ethnic or economic divisions. There were no religious d
ivisions between the Hutus and the Tutsis (church-going Catholics all) in Rwanda in 1994 when they started killing each other. In fact many Tutsis sought refuge in churches, believing that they’d be safest there (tragically, they weren’t).
I know many people believe religion to be responsible for a lot of the world’s problems, and I respect Dawkins’ right to believe this. But he can’t claim it as a fact, or anything like a fact. In my opinion, he’s being gullible if he watches world leaders and celebrity terrorists talk about religion and believes they mean any of the pious bullshit they recite. Religion’s not the problem. Maybe religion can even help.
I don’t deny that Dawkins is a smart guy and a talented writer. It’s just that logic is not his strong point, and he shouldn’t wave his Oxford degree around and play around with numbers and premises and conclusions and summaries if he doesn’t intend to actually present a logical proof. I hope there will be more books on the topic of religion, and I will continue to pay attention to the stuff Dawkins says (as well as his fellow atheist Daniel Dennett, whose philosophical books like Brainstorms are as good as I wish Dawkins’ were).
But Dawkins himself turned in a sub-par performance here, and that’s why it’s a bit dismaying that The God Delusion is currently selling better than any Daniel Dennett book ever did. I say we give Dawkins the skyhook, and pray for something better.