Blog

Richard Dawkins: A Philosophical and Theological Lightweight? Responding to Dawkins, Part II

by Paul Copan

In my last post, I mentioned my brief interaction with Richard Dawkins when he came to Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale last month.

A week later, I responded to Dawkins at Nova in an open forum. (Here is one of the video clips from the Q&A time that followed—on “If God Made the Universe, Who Made God?” Look for more postings in the future.) I mentioned that I would post (in serial form) my modified notes from my open forum at Parchment and Pen. So here is Part II of my “Dawkins Series.”

*****

When scholars step outside of their discipline, their authority doesn’t automatically carry over to other fields of study. In the case of Dawkins at Nova Southeastern, one wouldn’t know this from the rousing applause he received following his cheapshot slams on “religion.” (I gave one such audio sample in my last blog posting.) Yes, Dawkins has done some creative work when it comes to evolutionary theory, and I’m not really concerned about this. Evolution is a secondary consideration in the big scheme of things; it doesn’t at all disprove God’s existence. The bottom-line issue is not evolution but naturalism—God vs. no God. The assumption that “evolution did it all; so we don’t need God” is false. Evolution, first of all, needs a universe (think “Big Bang”)—not only this, but a life-permitting universe; and not only that, but a life-producing universe; beyond all of these, a life-sustaining universe. All of these stages would be necessary before evolution has a chance of advancing from a bacterium to homo sapiens. A being like God is capable of bringing this off without a problem, however. And what’s so far-fetched about design in the universe and even organisms? Dawkins himself acknowledges the strong appearance—indeed, the “illusion”—of design. Biology, he claims, is the study of complicated things that appear to be designed but are not! If God exists and could use the evolutionary process to bring about his purposes, then we don’t have to talk about mere appearance of design, but actual design. But let that pass.

When Dawkins steps outside of his field—into theology or philosophy—he’s a lightweight, and even fellow atheists acknowledge this. The atheist philosopher of science Michael Ruse at FIU has said, “Richard Dawkins makes me embarrassed to be an atheist.” [1] Terry Eagleton, an English literature and cultural theory professor (not a theist, so far as I know), severely criticizes “Ditchkins”—his composite name for Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. He considers them to be both out of their depth and misrepresenters of the Christian faith: “they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be.” [2] Sociologist Rodney Stark (at that time writing as an agnostic-moving-toward-Christianity) [3] put it this way: “To expect to learn anything about important theological problems from Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett is like expecting to learn about medieval history from someone who had only read Robin Hood.” [4] 

In a book I coedited with fellow-philosopher William Lane Craig, he wrote an essay entitled “Dawkins’s Delusion,” which replies to Dawkins’s book The God Delusion. Craig does his darndest to piece together Dawkins’s argument against God’s existence—which, Craig concludes, is “embarrassingly weak.” At the end of his essay, Craig writes:

Several years ago my atheist colleague Quentin Smith unceremoniously crowned Stephen Hawking’s argument against God in A Brief History of Time as “the worst atheistic argument in the history of Western thought.” [5] With the advent of The God Delusion the time has come, I think, to relieve Hawking of this weighty crown and to recognize Richard Dawkins’ accession to the throne. [6]

At Dawkins’s talk, he claimed that a divine designer who is as complex as the universe he designed doesn’t explain anything; rather, a naturalistic scenario, which moves from simplicity to complexity, does explain things. But this is naïve and misguided for a number of reasons.

First, according to the prevailing big bang cosmological model, the universe’s beginning looks like the “traditional metaphysical picture of creation out of nothing,” as naturalistic astronomers John Barrow and Joseph Silk affirm. [7]Something coming from nothing—now that’s a really simple beginning! But of course, it makes no metaphysical sense that being came from non-being; something coming from something is metaphysically obvious.

Second, this argument doesn’t really have any traction among the critics in the philosophy of religion. One big reason for this is that such a criterion is rather arbitrary. Why not argue that the designer should be more complex than what was designed? To make a claim is one thing; to justify it is another. Why think that Dawkins’s mere assertion should be taken as authoritative?
  


[1] Michael Ruse’s comment is found on the cover of Alister and Joanna McGrath’s book The Dawkins Delusion? (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2007). 

[2] Terry Eagleton, “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching,” London Review of Books (October 19, 2006). Available at URL: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n20/print/eagl01_.html (accessed November 25 2007). Eagleton gives a fuller critique in Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009). 

[3] After reading an interview with Stark in 2006 (where he identified himself as agnostic), I emailed him, inquiring as to where he was in his pilgrimage.  He replied to me(30 August 2010), Stark stated this: “I slowly wrote my way to faith.” 

[4] Rodney Stark, What Americans Really Believe (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2008), 120.  

[5] Quentin Smith, “The Wave Function of a Godless Universe,” in Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1993), 322. 

[6] William Lane Craig, “Dawkins’s Delusion,” in Contending with Christianity’s Critics: Answering New Atheist and Other Objectors (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 5 

[7] (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 38

22 Responses to “Richard Dawkins: A Philosophical and Theological Lightweight? Responding to Dawkins, Part II”

  1. Sociologist Rodney Stark (at that time writing as an agnostic-moving-toward-Christianity) [3] put it this way: “To expect to learn anything about important theological problems from Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett is like expecting to learn about medieval history from someone who had only read Robin Hood.” [4]

    Hmm, that’s apt in another way.

    IIRC, Dawkins has defended himself against the “you don’t know what you’re talking about when it comes to theology” charge by making comparison to the Emperor’s New Clothes story. (He doesn’t need to be familiar with detailed discussions about the emperor’s new clothes–cloth type, texture, design, manufacture, etc. Not when he can see that the emperor hasn’t got any clothes!) Nevermind that it leads him to knocking down a strawman view of God.

    So it’s like he’s convinced that because Robin Hood is a myth, he doesn’t need to study medieval history.

  2. Great article. I agree with you in many areas. Evolution is the means by which God creates. It is glorious to watch. I’m not sure why the idea of there being a God threatens the hell out of a lot of people, but it does. I suppose the need to be at the top of the Intellectual/evolutionary chain is what keeps people rejecting a higher power. They really have no understanding of God if this is the case.

    Take care.

  3. “So it’s like he’s convinced that because Robin Hood is a myth, he doesn’t need to study medieval history.”

    Right. Though I would say it’s like he is so convinced that black holes don’t exist, he doesn’t have to debate astronomers.

  4. How much do we NEED to know, to reject Christianity? It promises tons of miracles – which don’t come true. End of story.

    Do we have to study Nazism to reject IT?

    It’s so obviously false, there’s no need to get involved in the endless web of apologetics: excuses and lies and sophistries. They would only make the obviously false, appear plausible, to gullible people.

  5. Can you give us an example of one of the tons of miracles you’re referring to, Billy?

  6. Professor Copan, I’ve been reading Eagleton’s book recently and agree that the “New Atheist” movement is more founded on a sneering and superior attitude than on real scholarship. I’ll have to remember the Robin Hood quote.

    But I would disagree with your assertion that the Big Bang points to creation ex nihilo.

  7. Pulitzer Prize-winning world leading physicist Brian Greene made some remarks about the Big Bang that I think you will want to keep in mind:

    “A common misconception is that the big bang provides a theory of cosmic origins. It doesn’t. The big bang is a theory… that delineates cosmic evolution from a split second after whatever happened to bring the universe into existence, but it says nothing at all about time zero itself. And since, according to the big bang theory, the bang is what is supposed to have happened at the beginning, the bang leaves out the bang. It tells us nothing about what banged, why it banged, how it banged, or, frankly, whether it ever really banged at all.”

    Brian Greene, “The Fabric of the Cosmos”, pg. 272.

    To summarize, the big bang isn’t even a theory about the beginning of the universe at all. It merely picks a beginning point from which we can start measuring, while telling us nothing at all about whether that really is the absolute beginning.

  8. Thanks for your comments. Billy, I am curious about your assertion about miracles as well, Moreover, you simply posit a statement without any defense. I could just turn around and say the following: “Do we have to study Nazism to reject IT? Atheism is so obviously false, there’s no need to get involved in the endless web of [atheological] apologetics: excuses and lies and sophistries. They would only make the obviously false, appear plausible, to gullible people.” Not much accomplished by that assertion, is there?

    Seth, as to the Big Bang, I would say that the technicality doesn’t override the remarkable phenomena (e.g., expanding universe, microwave background radiation, second law of thermodynamics) that many (astro)physicists (Weinberg, Davies, Jastrow, etc.) see as pointing to an absolute beginning, even if we can’t see into the past beyond a certain horizon. Have a look at my *Creation Out of Nothing*, which goes into a lot of detail on this.

  9. Billy: it is true that lies will seem plausible to gullible people, and that is an unfortunate consequence of the free trade of information.

    However: to not study something is to use an anti-intellectual approach. Unless you think that you are one of those gullible people, then what harm is there in at least knowing your enemy? Isn’t that rule one in Sun Tzu’s Art of War? To remain in ignorance is simply sloppy.

    Although logic is what proves who is right in a debate, it is rhetoric that wins the crowd’s favor. If you justify anti-intellectual propaganda against certain ideologies, then you open the door to being fooled at some point. The fact is: unless you really and truly study what you’re up against, there is always the possibility that you’ve been duped.

    Also sloppy is the comparison of Christianity to Nazism. One condones mass murder, and the other forbids murder. Huge difference.

  10. How do we know a bank note is counterfeit?

    Some Christians have said that people just study real banknotes until we know them so well that we can pick out the real from the fake.

    That isn’t how real counterfeit experts work. They do study the counterfeits, finding out the various points of difference between the counterfeit and the real in order to better determine the false.

    Someone who claims to “debunk” Christianity without even knowing enough about it to correctly present it’s arguments is simply lazy. That he gets mileage in the atheist camp tells me that they are equally (or even more) lazy.

    Someone who compares Christianity to Nazism obviously fails to realise that in their commitment to science, evolution, and the power of the state, Nazism was far closer to the ideals that atheists hold dear.

  11. “When scholars step outside of their discipline, their authority doesn’t automatically carry over to other fields of study.”

    I know Paul’s statement is directed towards atheistic scientists who bash Christianity using naive and unsound arguments. As a lay Christian and a biologist, I think some Christian theologians share some of the blame in this as well, when they roundly criticize evolutionary theory without having a firm grasp of the theory. To cite Terry Eagleton, these Christian scholars also “invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of evolution (or science in general) that would make a first-year biology graduate student wince”. Next thing you know, lay Christians get their misinformation about evolution from these theologians and pastors. Some of them end up losing their faith when they go to college and learn that what they’ve been taught at church about evolution was misguided — leading them to question everything they’ve learnt about the…

  12. … Gospel.

  13. I have read the God Delusion and I recall Dawkins saying something along the lines of “Do I need to study Leprechaunism to not believe in Leprechauns?” My so-called classification of myself is skeptic because as Carl Sagan best put it, “The atheist knows something which I do not.” There are many arguments I feel are compelling from a philosophical standpoint which don’t come up nearly as often as evolution, big bang, etc. We can only go so far with our knowledge of the universe at the moment. I would rather not spend my whole life trying to chase down the right god or gods hoping I have the right belief in the end. If a creator exists then that is swell. I haven’t pondered it too much, but I have a hard time seeing how one can go beyond believing there was a creator to devoting their life to a specific creator given all of the possibilities. Meanwhile I care not to gamble what little free time I have between work, sleep, and all of my other responsibilities on ancient text.

  14. “Evolution is a secondary consideration in the big scheme of things; it doesn’t at all disprove God’s existence.”

    Well if that’s true then address this argument:

    1. If God chose to use evolution as the process by which he created human beings and all other forms of life, then God knowingly chose a process that requires suffering that is logically unnecessary.
    2. An all-good, perfectly moral God who is incapable of unwarranted cruelty would not create beings that could consciously suffer in a way that was not logically necessary.
    3. Therefore, the traditional notion of God who is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good does not exist.

  15. You left out all-loving. A loving God affords freedom to mankind. Freedom to move away from God is automatically freedom to enter into suffering, since we were made for God, not for being away from Him. It is logically necessary for love to permit freedom, and for freedom to permit suffering.

  16. Free will does not explain natural evil and suffering. Try again.

  17. I suppose you are thinking of someone able to leave the God we were made to be in relationship with, yet experiencing no discomfort in the process. I suppose that is logically possible for an infinite being to put together. So perhaps free will does not entirely explain suffering, but it makes sense from the human perspective if God were like us.

    I don’t know how you can say that free will does not explain evil. Free will explains that evil is a choice we have, and from there we have caused evil by making that choice. I am defining evil as anything that goes against good, God being all good, so it is like saying that any disobedience to good is by definition evil. Free will means we are able to disobey.

    Would evil really be evil if it did not cause any suffering to anyone? If there are only good things for everyone, that is the definition of goodness and love, not of evil. I suppose you can conceive of a way to have the opposite of good, thanks to free will, yet still have no suffering as a result. Hmm?

  18. How does free will explain natural suffering not caused by people? Please make a case for it based on logic and evidence.

  19. “1. If God chose to use evolution as the process by which he created human beings and all other forms of life, then God knowingly chose a process that requires suffering that is logically unnecessary.”

    Your first premise is highly debatable, and quite frankly, bad logic for the following reasons.

    1. Inherent in your first premise is a modal presupposition in which you imply impossible for the suffering required by evolution to be necessary. You then ask us to prove that it is necessary, however that is not the way modal logic works. You, as the person claiming that something is logically impossible, have the burden of proving this to be the case. The default position is always that something is possible in the absence of an argument that it is impossible, or necessary. Hence the default modal position would be agnostic in the sense that it is possible that the suffering inherent in evolution is necessary and it is possible that it was unnecessary. You have given no such argument to defend your first premise or overcome the default modal presumptions and therefore it can be ignored. Furthermore, given our inherent human limitations and complete lack of knowledge when it comes to counterfactuals, contingent truths, and ultimate purpose of the universe, I’m not sure any argument can be made for either way as to whether the suffering inherent in evolution is “necessary”. Whether it is “necessary” will depend on the ends one seeks to achieve through it.

    2. Also inherent in your argument is the presumption that suffering is objectively evil or bad. Absent a god I’m not sure how one can make such a statement. If one assumes naturalism one cannot make such moral statements. If one assumes god it cannot be evil by definition (we can, in our opinions, think it such, but that does not make is so).

  20. 3. As a final matter, if one accepts even the possibility of “god”, one must also accept that it is possible for god to have created the universe with the appearance of age for some reason unknown to us. On a personal level I’m actually agnostic on this matter. I think anything from theistic evolution to young earth creationism are possibilities and lean towards theistic evolution, however I must admit the possibility that the universe was created in place a relatively short time ago. There would really be no way to tell.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. » Response to Richard Dawkins Effectual Grace - June 7, 2011

    […] Part 2: A Philosophical and Theological Lightweight? (read here) […]

Leave a Reply