Religion faces atheist fundamentalism

While preaching in Alberta, Canada, last July, I made a passing reference to British atheist Richard Dawkins, taking all of 10 seconds to do it. Never expecting the name to register with anyone in the audience, I was surprised when a young woman approached me about my remarks following the service.

“There’s a guy down in my office,” she said, “a friend of mine. He’s reading Dawkins, and is very impressed. Do you know of anyone who has answered him – any book I might recommend?”

“Alister McGrath,” I said as she wrote it down. “The name of his book is The Dawkins Delusion?” The book’s subtitle is: “Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine.”1 McGrath, an atheist-turned-Christian, received a doctorate in molecular biophysics at Oxford, and his book presents a masterful response to Dawkins. This article focuses on McGrath’s response to Dawkins, with my own (lay) critique mixed in. The initial idea for the piece came when I heard McGrath deliver a powerful rejoinder to Dawkins during a conference in Cambridge, England, in April, 2007.

So what is Dawkins about?

Spewing venom

The title of Dawkins’ book: The God Delusion2 says it all – no subtitle needed. And right from the start – in the preface – he puts his cards out on the table for all to see: “If this book works as I intend,” he says, “religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down” (Dawkins, p. 28).

That cocky forecast makes one shudder just a little. What faith-shattering stuff am I in for? But then, as if bracing himself for a less than total knockout, Dawkins throws a (derisive) caveat into the mix: “Of course,” he says, “dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument, their resistance built up over years of childhood indoctrination” (Dawkins, p. 28).

Getting down to business in chapter 2, this Oxford science professor moves quickly to his major target: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction [the words are loaded]: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully” (Dawkins, p. 51).

As Dawkins sees it, much of the world’s problems come from the blind following we give to this and other capricious gods – figments of the human mind. As with John Lennon of Beatles fame, he dares to dream of “a world with no religion.” It would be a place with “no suicide bombers, no 9/11 … no Crusades, no witch-hunts, … no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as ‘Christ-killers,’ … no shiny-suited bouffant-haired televangelists fleecing gullible people of their money” (Dawkins, pp. 23, 24). (Conveniently, Dawkins ignores the massacres of untold millions by atheists such as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.)

Intelligent people don’t dabble with religion – and especially not scientists! “Great scientists who profess religion,” Dawkins says, “stand out for their rarity and are a subject of amused bafflement to their peers in the academic community” (Dawkins, p. 125). Dawkins says he once asked Jim Watson, “founding genius of the Human Genome Project,” “whether he knew many religious scientists today.” Watson replied: “Virtually none” (Dawkins, pp. 125, 126).

In response to this claim, however, McGrath has noted that in the very year The God Delusion was published (2006), “Owen Gingerich, a noted Harvard astronomer, produced [a book titled] God’s Universe, declaring that ‘the universe has been created with intention and purpose, and that this belief does not interfere with the scientific enterprise.’ Francis Collins published his Language of God, which argues that the wonder and ordering of nature points to a Creator God, very much along the lines of traditional Christian conception …. [And] cosmologist Paul Davies published his Goldilocks Enigma, arguing for the existence of ‘fine-tuning’ in the universe” (McGrath, p. 42).

“Underlying the agenda of The God Delusion,” says McGrath, is that “atheism is the only option for the serious, progressive, thinking person.” Religious experience is “associated with pathological brain activity” (McGrath, pp. 33, 66). The gospel, Dawkins says, is fiction (Dawkins, p. 123). And as if appealing to the coming generation still making up its mind, Dawkins proffers something akin to spiritual assurance: “You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled” (Dawkins, p. 23).

It’s a conscious, calculated effort on Dawkins’ part – an “epic struggle against religion,” McGrath calls it (McGrath, p. 51). According to McGrath, Dawkins sees science and religion as “locked in a battle to the death. Only one can emerge victorious – and it must be science” (McGrath, p. 46). Dawkins’ goal, says McGrath, is “the intellectual and cultural destruction of religion” (McGrath, p. 24). He thrusts to kill, to finish Christianity off once and for all.

Dawkins’ Achilles heel

The God Delusion is not a small book. Its 420 pages contain a multitude of claims and charges, making a detailed response impossible. With that in mind, I want to zero in on what I consider the Achilles heel of Dawkins’ entire framework.

In a six-point summary of the chapter “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God”3 (the pivotal chapter of the book, I think), Dawkins’ first point captures perhaps the central issue of the book: “One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect, over the centuries has been to explain how the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arises.”4

How would Dawkins deal with this basic challenge? That’s the issue here.

Two creationist arguments concerned him in this connection: (1) the argument from improbability; and (2) the argument from irreducible complexity.

1. Improbability. Simply put, the argument from improbability suggests that the complexity we see within and around us demands that there be a superior intelligence behind it all. Or to paraphrase the way Dawkins himself characterized it (quoting Fred Hoyle): The probability of life originating on earth by itself is tantamount to “the chance that a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard [sic], would have the luck to assemble a Boeing 747” (Dawkins, pp. 137, 138).

But however apparently convincing, says Dawkins, such arguments are made only by those who know nothing about the process of natural selection (Dawkins, p. 138).

Citing Daniel Dennett (whom he describes as the “scientifically savvy philosopher”), Dawkins argues that it does not take “a big fancy smart thing to make a lesser thing.” The uninitiated would attempt to make their case for intelligent design by suggesting that “you’ll never see a horseshoe making a blacksmith” or “a pot making a potter.” But, says Dawkins confidently, “Darwin’s discovery of a workable process that does that very counter-intuitive thing is what makes his contribution to human thought so revolutionary”5 Incredible!

What’s being advocated here by Darwin, Dennett, and Dawkins is that, however counter-intuitive, horseshoes do, indeed, make blacksmiths! An extraordinary thought, indeed!

And how does it happen? Not by chance (Dawkins hates that word), but by natural selection (see Dawkins, p. 145). “Natural selection,” Dawkins says, “is the champion crane of all time. It has lifted life from primeval simplicity to the dizzy heights of complexity, beauty and apparent design that dazzle us today” (Dawkins, p. 99).

The upshot of his argument is that since natural selection is responsible for all we see around us, “God … is a delusion” (Dawkins, p. 52). Such logic boggles the mind and calls on people to abandon common sense.

2. Irreducible complexity. Popularized by Michael J. Behe in Darwin’s Black Box,6 irreducible complexity suggests that the life forms we know today – even the simplest ones –are comprised of interlocking, interdependent components, too complex to have evolved piecemeal through chance or natural selection. In this connection, Darwin himself pointed to the eye as posing a particularly challenging problem – and Dawkins repeats the master’s words in his book. Darwin said: “To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree” (Dawkins, pp. 148, 149).

It’s an extremely cogent observation. But Darwin (with Dawkins following) would find a way around it. Darwin’s statement, according to Dawkins, was merely a “rhetorical device” to lure his opponents closer to him so he could administer a more powerful punch. And that punch, says Dawkins, “was Darwin’s effortless explanation of exactly how the eye evolved by gradual degrees” (Dawkins, p. 149).

Dawkins’ own explanation of such a feat is to fall back on a parable he’d used in an earlier book, Climbing Mount Improbable.7 He imagines a mountain with a sheer cliff on one side, “impossible to climb.” But “on the other side is a gentle slope to the summit.” “On the summit,” he further imagines, “sits a complex device such as an eye.” Intelligent design proponents would suggest that such complexity “could spontaneously self-assemble,”8 but that’s an “absurd notion,” he argues; for that would be like “leaping from the foot of the cliff to the top in one bound” (Dawkins, p. 147).

However, Dawkins suggests that evolution, rather than taking the steep side of the mountain, does it the proper way. It “goes around the back of the mountain and creeps up the gentle slope to the summit: easy!”

So the picture Dawkins draws is that of a vast quantity of primordial materials (as if we know where such things might come from!) slowly ascending “Mount Improbable,” each particular unit at some point arriving at the maximum state of complexity, and then somehow linking up with other complexities to form discrete, living, functioning entities! Perhaps impressed himself by the fantasy of it all, Dawkins says that “if genuinely irreducible complexity could be properly demonstrated, it would wreck Darwin’s theory” (Dawkins, p. 151, italics supplied).

But irreducible complexity needs no demonstration; it’s reality. And it’s difficult to see why anyone would substitute Dawkins’ irrational speculation for the simple gravity of the biblical affirmation: “In the beginning God created …” (Gen. 1:1, KJV).

Where I come down

The contemporary period has seen a spate of attacks on God, the Bible, and all things religious – in works such as D. C. Bennett’s Breaking the Spell (2006)9; D. Mills’ Atheist Universe (2006)10 and Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great (2007).11 As I rode a bus in Chicago in early November, I fell into conversation with a fellow conference attendee who, before we parted, handed me a flyer for a book by a certain Bob Avakian, titled Away With All Gods!12

It’s a veritable anti-God epidemic, much of it related to pseudo-scientific philosophy. And it would be easy for us to vacate the field, curling our tails between our legs like frightened dogs. After all, many of us (myself first) are not scientists and, if you’re like me, are hesitant to enter the gated scientific community without permission. Yet as free-thinking human beings, we have a right, I think, not to bow to an atheist fundamentalism, every bit as intolerant as its religious opposite.

Dawkins represents that kind of intolerance. McGrath, himself a scientist, describes Dawkins as offering “the atheistic equivalent of slick hellfire preaching, substituting turbocharged rhetoric and highly selective manipulation of facts for careful, evidence-based thinking.” It’s an “abuse of the natural sciences in the interest of atheist fundamentalism,” says McGrath (McGrath, p. 11). Following a series by Dawkins on the BBC, McGrath says – a series designed to leave viewers with the impression that religion is the root of all evil – “one senior atheist scientific colleague at Oxford said to me … : ‘Don’t judge the rest of us by this pseudointellectual drivel’” (McGrath, p. 51).

Two points to finish:

1. Like McGrath, I’m not impressed by Dawkins’ selective use of religious institutions and people to make his point. “There is … a lunatic fringe to every movement,” McGrath suggests. “[And] one of the most characteristic features of Dawkins’ antireligious polemic is to present the pathological as if it were normal, the fringe as if it were the center, crackpots as if they were mainstream” (McGrath, p. 22).

Still, I find it beyond unfortunate that Christians, of all religious people, should have provided Dawkins and other atheists so much fodder for their attack. When Dawkins maligns the religious education of children, for example, he is able to point convincingly to flagrant abuses of children committed within Christian religious education settings. Shame on us!

To cite another example, British atheists are raising funds to plaster London buses with posters flaunting their agenda. The banners say: “There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Richard Dawkins has pledged to match donations up to more than US $9,000. There’s been an enthusiastic response from certain sectors of the British public. “Spread the word,” one contributor said gleefully, “and consign this superstitious nonsense to the dustbin of history!”13

What I found most grating about it all was that the campaign came about in reaction to Christian advertisements on those same buses, with a Web address for a site that condemned the unconverted to an “eternity in ‘torment in hell.’”14 What if those who placed those Christian ads had bothered to stay faithful to Scripture on that sensitive point?

2. Nobel Prize-winning Oxford immunologist Peter Medawar makes the point that there are “transcendent” questions “science cannot answer, and that no conceivable advance of science would empower it to answer.” Questions such as: “How did everything begin? What are we all here for? What is the point of living?”15

Such questions have to do with protology and eschatology. Protology, the study of origins (how we got here, etc.), occupied us briefly under the previous section: “Dawkins’ Achilles Heel.” And we saw a little of Dawkins’ tortured attempt to grapple with it. Here we note the bleakness of his eschatology – what he himself calls “the ultimate fate of our universe.” “Depending upon the values … [of certain numbers],” he says, “our universe may be destined to expand indefinitely, or it may stabilize at an equilibrium, or the expansion may reverse itself and go into contraction, culminating in the so-called ‘big crunch’” (Dawkins, p. 174).

What a bleak picture! Bleaker still if we put it in the words of Bertrand Russell, one of Dawkins’ philosophical mentors. Russell envisioned that “all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system.”16

Why would one accept that dismal prospect in place of what the Bible offers? Here it is, in all its elegance, from the seer of Patmos:

“I saw Heaven and earth new-created. Gone the first Heaven, gone the first earth, gone the sea. I saw Holy Jerusalem, new-created, descending resplendent out of heaven, as ready for God as a bride for her husband. I heard a voice thunder from the Throne: ‘Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! … He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good – tears gone, crying gone, pain gone.’ … The Enthroned continued, ‘Look! I’m making everything new. Write it all down – each word dependable and accurate’” (Rev. 21:1-4; 22:4, The Message* ).

That’s where I come down.

Roy Adams (Ph.D., Andrews University) is an associate editor of Adventist Review. This article was first published in a slightly different form in Adventist Review. Used by permission.

REFERENCES

  1. Alister E. and Joanna Collicutt McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion? (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2007). Notwithstanding the book’s co-authorship, all references in this article will be to Alister McGrath, as if he were the single author, a procedure they themselves follow in the book.
  2. New York and Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006.
  3. See Dawkins, pp. 188, 189.
  4. Dawkins, p. 188. Italics supplied.
  5. Cited in Dawkins, p. 142. Italics supplied.
  6. New York: The Free Press, 1996.
  7. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1996.
  8. Incidentally, proponents of intelligent design do not suggest that complexity “could spontaneously self-assemble,” as Dawkins suggests, but rather that an intelligence is responsible for the assembling.
  9. New York: Penguin, 2006.
  10. Berkeley, CA: Ulysses Press, 2006.
  11. New York: Twelve Hachette Book Group, 2007.
  12. Chicago: Insight Press, 2008.
  13. http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5jJJPnbeIqCvhvmnSPVvqOdUGbSAA.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Quoted in McGrath, p. 39. Italics supplied.
  16. http://www.users.drew.edu/~jlenz/fmw.html
  17. * The Message, was written in a contemporary language, current and fresh and understandable.