Richard Dawkins is a phenomenal zoologist but an abysmal philosopher. And nowhere are his inadequacies as a philosopher more apparent than in what he believes is a knock-down argument against belief in God. Here is the argument, proposed in detail in The God Delusion and summarized in this presentation (he lays out the argument starting at 44:27):
Complicated things come into the universe late, as a consequence of slow, gradual, incremental steps. God, if he exists, would have to be a very, very, very complicated thing indeed. So to postulate a God as the beginning of the universe, as the answer to the riddle of the first cause, is to shoot yourself in the conceptual foot because you are immediately postulating something far far more complicated than that which you are trying to explain…If you have problems seeing how matter could just come into existence – try thinking about how complex intelligent matter, or complex intelligent entities of any kind, could suddenly spring into existence, it’s many many orders of magnitude harder to understand.
What makes this argument so bad? Let’s start with the last sentence, where Dawkins questions how “complex intelligent entities of any kind could suddenly spring into existence.” This assumes that Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe that God sprang into existence.This is the precise opposite of what Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe. The claim of the great monotheisms is that God did not come into existence but rather has always existed. And the arguments for this have a rich history. To summarize them in a very abbreviated fashion, the basic idea is that the universe and everything in it are finite and draw existence from something else. So there must be an ultimate reality that does not draw its existence from something else, but rather just is its existence – the idea behind the famous “I am who I am” declaration in Exodus 3:14. The classical arguments are actually far more detailed and nuanced (for an overview, check out my YouTube series on the five ways of Thomas Aquinas), but this summary is sufficient to show how completely Dawkins misunderstands the most basic claim of theism.
To propose an argument against belief in God that hinges on how improbable it is that such a being could “spring into existence” reflects appalling ignorance of the classical tradition about God. I am not suggesting that Dawkins should believe in God merely because of what monotheists claim about God. The real issue is whether the arguments that lead to such a conception of God are valid. But Dawkins should at least understand what the traditional faiths mean when they speak about God, and he clearly does not.
This leads to a second crucial mistake in Dawkins’s argument. He believes that if there is a God it must be a “very, very complicated thing indeed.” This is the precise opposite of what Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe. Monotheists do not believe God is “complicated” – that God consists of lots of intricate parts. And the reason for this ties in to the previous point. Since God doesn’t derive existence from anything else, that must mean He is not composed of parts. Otherwise, those parts would have existed before God (just as the parts of a model exist before the model is assembled), and someone or something would have had to assemble the parts (just as someone has to glue the pieces of a model together). Since God is existence, He doesn’t derive existence from prior parts or a prior maker. The technical term for this doctrine is divine simplicity, and it flows from the belief that God is the ultimate foundation of all reality and being.
By arguing that God cannot exist because such a complex being is improbable, when the uniform confession of monotheism is that God is not a complex being at all, reveals another gaping hole in Dawkins’s understanding of the most rudimentary claims of theism. Let me stress – I don’t expect an atheist to accept the doctrine of divinely simplicity as true. But I would expect an atheist to at least understand what it is he is claiming when he says that “God” does not exist.
Compounding his error with a third crucial mistake, Dawkins believes that if God exists, he must have arisen through the same biological processes of evolution that produced every other complex structure in the universe. “Complicated things come into the universe late, as a consequence of slow, gradual, incremental steps.” For this to be the case, God would have to be just one more inhabitant of the universe made up of physical stuff subject to evolutionary processes. This is the precise opposite of what Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe. These faiths contend that God is the creator of the universe and therefore is not part of the universe. And since God is not composed of parts, He is not a physical being that can adapt over time in response to genetic mutation and natural selection.
Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how Dawkins’s argument could be worse. I suppose it could have some merit against belief in Zeus or Thor or the “Flying Spaghetti Monster,” but it is completely irrelevant to the view of God argued for and confessed by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. As many philosophers have pointed out, to argue like Dawkins is here would be like me arguing that evolution is “just a theory” and that Dawkins must believe “men came from apes.” No evolutionist believes that “men came from apes,” and when evolutionists use the word “theory” they are using it in a technical scientific sense rather than the more colloquial sense that we generally use the term. If I am going to challenge an evolutionist, I should try to understand what is meant by the theory of evolution (“a scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena,” like the wave theory of light), and I should try to understand the basics of evolutionary theory (man and ape evolved from a distant common ancestor).
But Dawkins has no real interest in understanding any of these things. He is blissfully content to continue making an argument that refutes a conception of God that no Jew, Christian, or Muslim believer has ever held. Ironically, for Dawkins, the “God delusion” is the deluded belief that his arguments have anything to do with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.