My Recent Interaction with Richard Dawkins

by Paul Copan

Last week, Richard Dawkins spoke here in Ft. Lauderdale at Nova Southeastern University on “The Fact of Evolution.” The following week, I spoke on “The Fact of God”—also delivered at Nova Southeastern. It was a direct response to Dawkins’s naturalistic worldview as well as a number of the comments he made at his lecture. My talk was followed by a very spirited discussion with a number of atheists in attendance. Well, “spirited” is euphemistic. One atheist who attended wrote to me, apologizing for the rude behavior of his fellow-atheists as they engaged with me!

Next week I’ll begin posting my response to Dawkins at Parchment and Pen. I’ll do so in a short series rather than giving my entire talk in one large chunk. But what I want to do here is discuss the question I posed to Richard Dawkins during the Q&A and then comment on his response to it. After all, since I couldn’t offer a rebuttal when I was on campus, I do so here!

One observation before I comment: During the Q&A time, when someone identified himself as a believer in God (or could be suspected of it), Dawkins at times sidestepped questions, ending with a quick jab at “religious” people being terrorists and or ignoramuses. For example, he called any advocate of old-earth creation “the not-completely stupid creationist.” His anti-religious quip to me was another such instance. So give a listen to the brief audio clip here—and then you can read my comments….

There I was—the first one in line during the Q&A. I asked Dawkins how he could claim that the naturalist id rationally superior to the theist since, according to his book River Out of Eden, all of us are dancing to the music of our DNA. Our beliefs are the product of non-rational, deterministic physical forces beyond our control—whether we’re theists or naturalists. In fact, if the naturalist is right, it’s only by accident—not because he’s more intellectually virtuous than the theist. That is, the naturalist has accidental true belief (which is not knowledge) rather than warranted true belief (which is knowledge).

Dawkins gave the odd reply that it’s kind of like Republicans and Democrats—with each group thinking they’re right and the other group wrong. But on what grounds could either side think they are more rational than the other? Dawkins then added that he supposed that whatever view “works” the correct one to hold. But here’s the problem: what “works” is logically distinct from “true” or “matching up with reality”—since we may hold to a lot of false beliefs that help us survive and reproduce, even if they are false. Indeed, naturalistic evolution is interested in survival and reproduction—the “four F’s” (fighting, feeding, fleeing, and reproducing). Truth, the naturalist philosopher Patricia Churchland argues, is secondary to these pursuits According to another such naturalist, the late Richard Rorty, truth is “utterly unDarwinian.”

To top off his answer to me (without addressing how to ground rationality), Dawkins dismissively quipped that science flies rockets to the moon while religion flies planes into buildings. Many in the audience applauded his rhetorical flourish. (How could a guy with a charming British accent be mistaken, right?!) His “bumper sticker argumentation” [1] reminded me of what St. Augustine said about the dismissive “Christian” answer to the sincere (Manichean) question: “What did God do before he made heaven and earth?” Augustine disliked the mocking answer that North African Catholics would give back to this heretical sect: “He was preparing hell…for those prying into such deep subjects.” (This actually reminds me of the unthinking dismissiveness of Dawkins here!) Yet Augustine refused to evade “by a joke the force of the objection.” He wrote:

It is one thing to see the objection; it is another to make a joke of it. I do not answer in this way. I would rather respond, “I do not know,” concerning what I do not know rather than say something for which a man inquiring about such profound matters is laughed at while the one giving a false answer is praised. [2]

Such responses from Dawkins are no doubt one of the reasons that atheist philosopher of science Michael Ruse declares: “The God Delusion makes me embarrassed to be an atheist.” [3]

The problem with Dawkins’s response is threefold. First, as one of my friends commented on Dawkins’ quip, it was science that built the airplanes capable of flying into a building, and it was Nazis during World War II who developed rockets to fly into space! No, it’s not “science vs. religion” here. Rather, people with differing motives and agendas can use science properly—or misuse it for evil ends. In fact, modern science is rooted in the biblical worldview, building on the foundation of Bible-believing thinkers such as Copernicus, Newton, Faraday, Boyle, and many others, as, say, Stanley Jaki has argued in his book The Savior of Science.

Second, how can Dawkins condemn “religious” people who fly planes into buildings since they are just dancing to their DNA—just like the naturalist is? They’re just doing what nature has programed them to do. We can further ask: Why isn’t Dawkins denouncing atrocities done in the name of atheism—like those of Stalin, Pol Pot, or Mao Tse-tung? Dawkins gives the impression that it’s only people of “religion” who carry out horrendous evils. Of course, if Dawkins is right, these mass murderers could not justly be condemned since they too were wired by nature to act as they did.

Third, Dawkins himself has elsewhere admitted that he doesn’t know what to do with determinism, and he recognizes something hypocritical in his own emotional reaction to murder or rape. In fact, the more consistent perspective would not be anger but rather argue that such criminals need to have their “faulty motherboard” replaced.

Note the excerpt from the following interview from October 2006:

Here is how the interview on determinism went:

Dawkins:….What I do know is that what it feels like to me, and I think to all of us, we don’t feel determined. We feel like blaming people for what they do or giving people the credit for what they do. We feel like admiring people for what they do. None of us ever actually as a matter of fact says, “Oh well he couldn’t help doing it, he was determined by his molecules.” Maybe we should… I sometimes… Um… You probably remember many of you would have seen Fawlty Towers. The episode where Basil where his car won’t start and he gives it fair warning, counts up to three, and then gets out of the car and picks up a tree branch and thrashes it within an edge of his life. Maybe that’s what we all ought to… Maybe the way we laugh at Basil Fawlty, we ought to laugh in the same way at people who blame humans. I mean when we punish people for doing the most horrible murders, maybe the attitude we should take is “Oh they were just determined by their molecules.” It’s stupid to punish them. What we should do is say “This unit has a faulty motherboard which needs to be replaced.” I can’t bring myself to do that. I actually do respond in an emotional way and I blame people, I give people credit, or I might be more charitable and say this individual who has committed murders or child abuse of whatever it is was really abused in his own childhood. ….

Manzari: But do you personally see that as an inconsistency in your views?

Dawkins: I sort of do. Yes. But it is an inconsistency that we sort of have to live with otherwise life would be intolerable. But it has nothing to do with my views on religion it is an entirely separate issue. [4]

Hmmm. You wouldn’t have known determinism was a profound problem for Dawkins, given his evasive response to my question! Of course, Dawkins doesn’t want us to accept the obvious conclusion that his hostility to belief in God just isn’t a “separate issue.” Rather, if he’s right, then his beliefs—on religion or biology—are just as determined by non-rational, material forces as anyone else’s, including the theist’s. They’re both in the same non-rational camp.

This is the kind of self-defeating perspective proferred by the late Nobel laureate, Francis Crick. Human identity—your joys and sorrows, your sense of identity (“you”) and your belief in free will—is nothing more than “the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” [5] If true, then Crick, like Dawkins, was only accidentally correct—not because of any superior rationality. After all, this belief itself is only the result of “the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules”!

Eighteenth-century philosopher Thomas Reid critiqued David Hume, author of The Treatise of Human Nature and one who held a similar view to that of Dawkins. Hume denied the self, arguing that individual humans are just a bundle of physical properties rather than morally responsible selves or agents: “it is certainly a most amazing discovery,” wrote Reid, “that thought and ideas may be without any thinking being.” Presumably then The Treatise of Human Nature had no author after all! It is only a set of ideas which came together, and “arranged themselves by certain associations and attractions.” [6] Likewise, this would mean that there is no self or agent whom we call “Richard Dawkins” and who is responsible for writing The God Delusion. Indeed, a large collection of molecules is gathering up the royalties!

I’ll have more to say about Dawkins’s determinism and naturalism in general in future blog posts. But for now, I hope this preliminary engagement with Dawkins’s ideas will generate some good discussion.


[1] See Edward Feser’s brilliant depiction of Richard Dawkins’s dismissiveness rather than genuine intellectual engagement in his “To a Louse” at

[2] Confessions, 11.12.14.

[3] From the cover of Alister McGrath’s book The Dawkins Delusion? Published by InterVarsity Press.

[4] “Who Wrote Dawkins’ New Book?” in Evolution News (October 2006). Accessed February 23, 2011:

[5] Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis (New York: Scribner’s, 1994), p. 3.

[6] Thomas Reid, An Inquiry into the Human Mind: On the Principles of Common Sense, ed. Derek R. Brookes, 4th edn., (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 1997), 2.6.13-14, p. 35

43 Responses to “My Recent Interaction with Richard Dawkins”

  1. Thanks for posting this, Paul.
    “Bumper sticker argumentation…” — it’s getting old.

    Was your talk recorded?

  2. Truth Unites... and Divides March 2, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    I look forward to this series, Dr. Copan!!

  3. Dr. Copan,

    I am looking forward to this discussion too.

    Just a quick note, I don’t know if it was just me, but I had a really hard time understanding Richard Dawkins in that clip. Part of it was his accent I am sure. But his voice also seemed to really echo for some reason.

  4. Good stuff, Paul. If atheism’s argument is so strong, I wonder why Dawkins and other atheists have to posture and use ad hominem so much? I once went onto a famous atheist board where I just read comments for a week or so first, and then finally challenged anyone to actually make an argument, as opposed to just calling names and acting as though they had a corner on reason. No one ever did. I think that’s telling. Atheists are the short guys in the room that want us to believe they’re 100 feet tall by speaking to us as though they are.

  5. I also think that Dawkins is being inconsistent for saying that murderers and rapists just need a new motherboard. If his theories are correct, then there may be cases when murdering someone or raping someone would bring survival to a person’s genes or a species as a whole. The planes that crashed into buildings on 9/11 should be seen by him as acts of sacrifice for the purpose of survival rather than something at which to cringe in horror. Fortunately for all of us, not many atheists really exist in the existential sense, even if they do in the empirical sense. Those who do exist in both senses, we usually lock up for the safety of society.

  6. Although, his suggestion about “needing a new motherboard” is something which could happen, which at least makes his theory interesting, since it is fairly conceivable.

    Suppose that at some point, neuroscience becomes advanced enough that if someone committs a horrible crime, their synapses can be manipulated through some procedure to make them less aggressive and anti-social. They become productive and normal members of society.

    Suppose (for the sake of argument) that there is a 1% recivity rate after the procedure is done, (and to avoid anyone making a humanist response, let me add that the vast majority of those former criminals appears happy, unmanipulated, freed, etc…)

    Then, should people be locked up for violent crimes, or rather zapped into civility? (a related question might be how would this upend traditional judeo-christian values and mores on sin and its causes and consequences?)

  7. Excellent piece, Dr. Copan. It’s so baffling to me that Dawkins, the most prestigious New Atheist of our day, is incapable of using anything substanitive in his critique of religion. “Science flies rockets to the moon while religion flies planes into buildings”? Really? That proves absolutely nothing, and yet he proudly espouses that kind of thinking like it is something noble and profound!

    Dr. Copan, it is great to have guys like you,, who don’t just sit around and let these “challenges” go unanswered. Hopefully through your speaking event the heart of an atheist was softened to the Gospel of Christ. Prayer is the apologist’s best weapon, in my opinion.

  8. “Indeed, a large collection of molecules is gathering up the royalties!”

    Just another item on the list of why we love you Paul.

  9. I’m not wanting to patronise Prof. Dawkins by any means, but I don’t think he’s dodging the question; his initial confusion and following response that misses the mark so badly suggests to me as though he simply hasn’t grasped the problem that Dr Copan has presented.

    It’s not uncommon for many of the New Atheists that I encounter to be unfamiliar with basic philosophy. Perhaps if they were, we’d have fewer atheists.

  10. Why admit Dawkins’ primary claim?

    Half of America knows that 9/11 was a false-flag operation, in which the Americans funded and had full knowledge of, while the owner of the World Trade Center gave the final timed command to “pull” the buildings with explosives.

    The 350 firemen who were murdered, and their families are the real victims here, with Mayor Ghouliani one of the major perpetrators.

    The whole thing was staged to give a non-sequitous excuse to take out Saddam Hussein, who was not ‘Al Queda’, but actually their enemy.

    Why Saddam? Because he controlled OPEC, and the Oil Giants didn’t like him as a middle-man.

    The same lies the USA was telling then, we see Qaddafi still telling now: “Al Queda” is behind the Libyian ‘rebellion’. They’re giving drugs to the young people, to fight the government.”

    “Religionists” did not fly airplanes into buildings anymore than oil companies “saved” us from cigarettes.

  11. Please delete Nazaroo’s comment. This blog is not the forum for conspiracists to spout their oddities.

    I’m trying to be charitable with my words; people like Nazaroo are cruel and their ideas detestable.

  12. David Baggett March 3, 2011 at 4:07 am

    Excellent comments, Paul! Very insightful.

  13. His rhetorical flourish about science flies things to the moon while religion flies things into buildings is a really bad one. Science also invents incredibly destructive things, too. Atheism has also killed more people in the last 200 years than the rest of history combined. This could easily be twisted and turned right back around on him.

    It is sad that he is all bark and no bite and somehow he is the more rational person.

    Very disturbing.

  14. Could Dawkins maybe help himself to a Plantinga notion of “properly functioning” cognitive faculties? He might note that even on determinism and evolution cognitive faculties normally produce reliably true beliefs, but that the theists have a non-properly functioning wrench thrown in their cognitive system. That claim would be somewhat ad hoc, but might it not be consistent? Just wondering. I am working on a paper on two arguments from reason agains naturalism right now, so this stuff is on my mind.

  15. What exactly is the point of “debating” with people like Dawkins? Certainly no one’s mind is going to change. Presumably the most you can accomplish is the feeling of “I won” after a “debate”. As I see it, “debating” with him or others who are as certain of their correctness is socially useless.

    And his use of demogaugic rhetoric illustrates the pointless of it further.

  16. consulscipio: It’s worth debating Dawkins and others like him in public at least for the benefit of others who may be listening. Those who are happy enough with bumper-sticker slogans are unlikely to be affected, but there are others who will be compelled to reconsider their secularist assumptions when they see believers who are winsome, articulate and able to engage at a serious and substantial level. Such debate can also encourage those with a faith that is being shaken by Dawkins’ bombastic platitudes.

  17. Well said Gammell !

    Certainly with the use of evolution in schools and other humanist viewpoints being expounded we should strive to educate as to the real truth of many logical, educated people of faith.

  18. In my DNA there is a gene that determines I shall say “Pompous a*s” whenever I see a picture of Richard Dawkins, hear Richard Dawkins, see a reference to Richard Dawkins. :-)

    It amazes me that in a supposedly “educated” country, a geneticist’s (or whatever Dawkins’ professional field is supposed to be) speculations in a field foreign to his own (theology) gather so much attention.

    I wonder how much ink he would garner if he were challenging the tenets of particle physics?

    — Ishmael

  19. Thanks for the comments, folks. Sorry if the sound quality of the Dawkins clip wasn’t as good (recorded by someone in the audience).

    Many of you have rightly wondered why Dawkins has gained all this attention—despite his dismissive comments and ad hominem attacks. (Note my reference above to the Edward Feser piece, “To a Louse,” which says it all.)

    On debating Dawkins, I do agree that debating Dawkins would be good for those listening in. One person Dawkins refuses to debate is William Craig. Get this: Dawkins says that a debate would look good on Craig’s resume but not on his! Ironically, Dawkins/new atheists lack understanding and intellectual rigor when it comes to philosophy of religion/theology.

    On Dawkins’ comment that murderers/rapists need a new motherboard, this of course presumes the wider goal of survival/reproduction, but, strictly speaking, in a universe of selfish genes and electrons (according to Dawkins), good and evil don’t exist.

  20. Dawkins has admitted that presupposing determinism means that he should not judge them, nor himself, but that his own emotions do not allow him to fully act this way. He sees the inherent contradiction between his own thoughts and his emotions, but this does not discredit the reasoning in these thoughts. Insomuch as he claims “he” is rational at all he uses the language of causative agency. And that may be irrational, and hypocritical of him to do so. But don’t let an ad hominem attack be the sole point of your argument. Attack the ideas, not the person!

    Showing how silly you think determinists sound is not a sleight against the possibility of the truth of their ideas. If the determinists are right, yes, it is a fluke of the evolution of the universe that it is them and not you, who are presently correct, but it is not a fluke that their beliefs are true. In a determinist universe, physical laws are consistent and observations are testable and explainable by use of…

  21. Michael, I’m can’t figure out what you mean about an “ad hominem” attack. You may be confusing this with my pointing out the implications of his view. So if I were to call Dawkins “molecules in motion,” for instance, this shouldn’t be misconstrued as a personal attack.

    More to the point, if naturalism is correct, then this doesn’t inspire any confidence at all in the use of our rational faculties, nor is genuine knowledge possible–for Dawkins or any of us. What’s more, being right by accident isn’t even necessarily better since survival is naturalism’s end-game. That means that, one can hold both true AND false beliefs that help us to survive.

    Indeed, Dawkins’s confidence in his intellectual machinery reveals an outlook that better resembles theism than naturalism. I’ll begin blogging further on Dawkins later in the week.

  22. I think another problem with Dawkins’s “it works” response is that he needs to rely on his brain to determine what works, so his answer really presupposes what’s at issue.

    I am surprised how often scientists who respond to Plantinga’s EAAN fail to appreciate this.

    I often here them claiming something like “yes evolution shows our cognitive faculties are unreliable aimed at survival not truth, but we can use science to check our beliefs and work out where they are mistaken” The obvious problem is that science involves using our cognitive facilities to do this.

  23. Matt, I agree and it reminds me of Lewis’ quote from _Mere Christianity_.

    “”Atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning. . .”

  24. Paul, Dawkin’s responses clearly demonstrates to us all the tragic evasiveness ad hominem perpetrates in the place of a well thought-out exchange. He, of all people, should know better than to stoop to such a lowly level, but, of late, that is his weak weapon of choice. I pitty him.

    Think about this: The natualist wants to argue using the “harm” dodge as his excuse for not believing in God, as Dawkins did with Ravi.

    Let’s construct what the naturalists propose as a deity. It’s actually lower than a cockroach.

    You or I can’t use our force of will to cause a cockroach to walk into a flame, and yet the so-called “atheist” wants a deity lacking the instinct to avoid self-destruction.

    Such a being would lack the ability to exercise only benevolence in the realms of ethics and morality, given man’s inability for such. And yet, that all-powerful, robotic being is the naturalist’s deity of choice.

    I’m thankful the Lord isn’t subject to our whims. Imagine such a world…

  25. Michael Clark’s comments are a misnomer, Paul Copan critique and Matt Flanagan’s reference to Plantinga’s pivotal EAAN paper specifically attacks Naturalistic Determinism, ideas that Dawkins endorses in his blurb about DNA’s dancing and has nothing to do with Dawkins himself. Its not Ad-Hominem

    Like the comment states, its a BIG IF.. Dawkins and the fundy atheists think that they are the winners, the official story, the majority..But sheer numbers alone are ambigious and has nothing to do with determing truth.

  26. PaulC, you’ve mentioned atheists behaving rudely when its their turn to speak. Its quite disturbing that in this golden age of secularity, its perfectly ok for irreligious folks to denigrate their fellow religious humans as delusional, barbaric and inferior, that’s its even considered the norm now. Fundy atheists like to point out an us vs them mentality when the religious fanatic persecutes, but they “compartmentalize” or suspend this standard when they denounce their fellow believers. for all their talk of moral humanism, they still succumb to demonization syndromes characterized by Nazi dehumanization of Jews, and Protestant caricatures of Catholics. Its also Ironic that people like Dawkins who spout their irrational arrogance are contributing to the growth of religious fanatics who want to silence him. If there’s an enlightened skeptic it would be Scott Atran, atheist psychologist, at least he was honest to admit that life has basic irrational elements…

    • Alvin, this is what I call left-wing fundamentalism. Yes, this selectivity is common among the New Atheists—something I document in my book *Is God a Moral Monster?*.

  27. Dawkins and his ilk act the way they do – arrogant and rude – because they are leftists first and atheists a distant second.

    What they are interested in doing is silencing the debate for the sake of a political agenda that advances an agenda.

  28. New Atheism can be defined, I believe, as a subversion of atheism to serve a political agenda for advancing some leftist cultural transformation based in Marx’ materialist naturalism. Atheists have been forged into a “victim group” that is directed toward specific agendas that aid and assist an overall Marxist goal:

    This goal is, I think, the overturning of Western Civilization and the Judeo-Christian culture that drives so much of what is antithetical to Marxism.

    Gone are the days of reasoned discussion between atheists and theists. There is a new breed of atheist who serves a political master, either as a willing activist or a “useful idiot.”

  29. Gruesome_knight August 6, 2011 at 9:37 am


    ” Why isn’t Dawkins denouncing atrocities done in the name of atheism—like those of Stalin, Pol Pot, or Mao Tse-tung? ”

    Those atrocities were not commited in the name of atheism, but in the name of a violent form of anti-theism which considers that all religions must be fought and eradicated.

    Atheism means simply believing there is no God.
    It does not entail or justify any kind of behaviours or actions any more than not believing that unicorns are among us.

    As shown by history, atheists can hold very different positions on meta-ethics, applied ethics and politic.
    It is as misleading to say that Staline was led by his atheism as to affirm that a mere faith in God leads UBL to his atrocities.

  30. Gruesome_knight says:
    ” Why isn’t Dawkins denouncing atrocities done in the name of atheism—like those of Stalin, Pol Pot, or Mao Tse-tung? Those atrocities were not commited in the name of atheism, but in the name of a violent form of anti-theism which considers that all religions must be fought and eradicated.”

    Those atrocities were not committed in the name of atheism, but they were committed in the name of an ideology that depends upon an atheist worldview.

    I have a theory that atheism inevitably leads to totalitarianism of one sort or another because it espouses the idea that man is the ultimate measure of things. it espouses the notion that man should do exactly what Satan attempted: dethrone God and install the usurper in his place.

    The atheism that Dawkins espouses – militant, confrontational, emotion driven and unreasoning – is deliberately designed to marginalize opposition to Marxism in the West. Destroy the church, and you destroy resistance to Marxism.

  31. The majority of Western atheists in the up and coming generation of teens and college grads are atheists because they have been indoctrinated into Marxism in college and high school.

    How do I know this? Because they use the same shallow talking points as pop culture atheists like Bill Maher. Because they are utterly convinced of their own superiority when in fact they are the mirror images of Flat Earthers. I may be wrong. But atheists I talk to nowadays seem to fall right along the leftist progressive column. They vary only in their relative distance from the political centerline. But they are enamored of the idea that they need to expunge Christianity from America.

    What disturbs me is that I encounter more and more young “conservative” atheists. This tells me that the long term subversion of our universities is succeeding culturally, blurring the philosophical lines between the right and left spheres. It means that Christians are being marginalized more and more.

  32. Hello there, You’ve done a great job. I will definitely digg it and personally recommend to my friends. I’m sure they’ll be benefited from this website.

  33. But you are not disproving his argument, merely invalidating his arrogance.

  34. I didn’t realize how far behind I am on responses. Thanks to all of you for your comments. Jonathan, I appreciate your pointing out the ready (often superficial) acceptance of atheism by the rising generation. In large part the church is not equipping the next generation to think through the faith (see David Kinnaman’s *You Lost Me* [Baker]).

    Josh, while I spend the follow-up blog posts responding more fully to Dawkins, I think even here Dawkins reveals how one cannot be a consistent naturalist. It’s logically possible that naturalism is true, but there would be no way to know this. Moreover, Dawkins has to confess to his own inconsistency in the interview with Justin Breierly. For the naturalist, there is, at best, only accidental true belief, which is not knowledge. The theist, by contrast, can be consistent with his worldview (which includes a rational Creator who has made rational creatures to seek–and find–truth) by affirming confident knowledge. He doesn’t have to *act* as though he knows even though his worldview doesn’t allow it. As Matt Flannagan noted above, Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism (EAAN) is quite effective in challenging the naturalist’s confident stance.


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