Richard Dawkins and His Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Argument Against the Existence of God

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.


The Problem of Evil and Suffering for Atheism

The most powerful argument against belief in God is the problem of evil and suffering. Its basic form goes like this:

  • If God is all-powerful He could prevent evil and suffering.
  • If God is all-good He would prevent evil and suffering.
  • But evil and suffering exist.
  • Therefore an all-powerful and all-good God does not exist.

In a previous post I explained that while the existence of evil and suffering poses a puzzle for believers (one that my wife and I are dealing with as she faces Stage 4 cancer), this puzzle does not disprove God’s existence.  In this post I want to flip the argument around as a problem for atheists by focusing on the third premise: “But evil and suffering exist.”

Last week I looked at the implications of atheism set forth by atheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg in his book, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality. Rosenberg believes that all that exists is the material world – particles of matter. Of course this means that there is no God, but as Rosenberg explains, it means much more than that. It also means that certain features of our existence that seem to be true, such as free will or consciousness or introspection, do not exist, either. That’s why his book is subtitled Enjoying Life Without Illusions. Free will and consciousness are merely illusions. All that really exists is the brain, and what we take to be experiences of consciousness are actually nothing more than the physical processes of the brain that are completely determined by the laws of physics.

Rosenberg freely acknowledges that this also means that good and evil do not exist.

We have to acknowledge (to ourselves, at least) that many questions we want the “right” answers to just don’t have any. These are questions about the morality of stem-cell research or abortion or affirmative action or gay marriage or our obligations to future generations. Many enlightened people, including many scientists, think that reasonable people can eventually find the right answers to such questions. Alas, it will turn out that all anyone can really find are the answers that they like. The same goes for those who disagree with them. Real moral disputes can be ended in lots of ways: by voting, by decree, by fatigue of the disputants, by the force of example that changes social mores. But they can never really be resolved by finding the correct answers. There are none (p. 96).

If this is so, then there is a major problem with the premise, “But evil and suffering exist.” If Rosenberg is right, evil does not exist. Not even the Holocaust – the premier exhibit of the problem of evil – can be described as evil. Rosenberg concedes that his view of morality – nihilism (the belief that morality, meaning, and purpose do not exist) – “can’t condemn Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot,” or anyone else (p. 98). The best Rosenberg can say is that fortunately, most people share a core morality that leads them to be nice, and that the real problem with the Nazis was “their wildly false factual beliefs about Jews” (p. 106, his emphasis).

This doesn’t really help Rosenberg, however, because four pages later he acknowledges that “natural selection is not very good at picking out true beliefs” (p. 110). In fact, his view is that according to evolution “racism and xenophobia are optimally adapted” by Mother Nature (p. 111). This means that:

If the environment had been very different, another moral core would have been selected for, perhaps even the dog-eat-dog morality…(p. 113).

This point was brought home to me recently while watching the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle. In the alternate history of the series, the Axis powers won World War II, and Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan rule the east and west coasts of America. In the first episode, one of the main characters blows out a tire in Nazi-controlled America. A Nazi police officer pulls off to help, and while they are talking, white flakes begin to fall from the sky. It isn’t snow – its ashes from the local hospital, where the terminally ill have been put to death and incinerated.

As a Christian, I believe that this is immoral and would be so in all possible worlds. But according to Rosenberg, this isn’t really evil, and in fact, if the evolutionary process had taken a different route, incinerating the weak and infirm might have been the “moral” belief that was chosen by natural selection. And so,

We have to accept that core morality was selected for, but we have to give up the idea that core morality is true in any sense (p. 113).

This means that an atheist cannot make the argument that “evil exists,” at least not in any meaningful sense.

But there is another aspect to the problem of evil – the problem of suffering. It isn’t just that women are raped, or children are murdered, or babies die from disease – it is that those who experience such evils also consciously suffer. As much as Kristi and I wrestle with the challenges of her illness, what breaks our heart is to see little children who are afflicted with this horrible disease. The suffering of little children is intolerable.

And yet, according to the radical materialism of Rosenberg, experiences like “colors, sounds, pains, smells, touches” do not really exist (p. 234). These are features of consciousness, but conscious experiences are only an illusion. Why? Because all that exists is matter (what he called “clumps of stuff”), and clumps of stuff aren’t conscious of anything.

“When consciousness assures us that we have thoughts about stuff, it has to be wrong” (p. 179, his emphasis).

In this light, it makes no sense for anyone to believe they are consciously suffering. We do not have thoughts about anything – including how much pain we are in. The most that we could say – as another materialist philosopher put it – is that “My C-fibers are firing.”

A couple of years ago I went to see an orthopedist about my knees. His assistant took some x-rays, then led me into the exam room. After a few minutes the doctor came in, looked at my X-rays, mumbled to himself while shaking his head, then turned to me and said (in an ominous voice), “You have many reasons to feel pain.” He sounded like a James Bond villain!

But of course, according to the perspective of Rosenberg, I do not consciously experience pain – that is impossible in principle. What the doctor should have said is, “Your C-fibers should be firing.” There can be physical processes, but not any kind of conscious suffering. And it would never make sense for the doctor or nurses to ask how much pain I am in – personal consciousness of pain is merely an illusion.

So then, consider once more this premise: But evil and suffering exist.

What Rosenberg says in his book is that neither assertion is true. “Evil” doesn’t exist because morality doesn’t exist. And “suffering” doesn’t exist because consciousness doesn’t exist. Since this is the key premise in the argument against belief in God, and since this premise is incoherent on Rosenberg’s account of evil and suffering, the argument fails.

It seems to me that atheists face three choices here:

  • Agree with Rosenberg that evil and suffering do not exist and concede that the argument fails.
  • Agree with Rosenberg that evil and suffering do not exist and change the premise to: “But according to Christians, evil and suffering exist.”
  • Disagree with Rosenberg’s contention that evil and suffering do not exist.

I suspect that most atheists would prefer the third option. I have met very few unbelievers who deny the reality of evil and suffering. But I am curious how “evil” and “suffering” can be coherently defined given the implications of pure materialism. That is the problem of evil and suffering for atheism.

Gird Up!

Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:13, King James Version).

Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:13, English Standard Version).

One of the classic movies of my high school years was The Karate Kid (what kid of the 80’s hasn’t done a crane kick pose?!). If you’ve never seen the movie, it’s the story of a young, scrawny kid named Daniel who moves to California and immediately runs afoul of a gang of bullies from a local karate dojo, “the Cobra Kai.” Just when it looks like Daniel is going to get throttled, an old man – Mr. Miyagi – rescues him by fending off the bullies with ease.

Miyagi takes Daniel under his wing to train him for a karate tournament so he can face the Cobra Kai on equal terms. The way he prepares Daniel is by imparting to him the ancient wisdom of the karate tradition, starting with rudimentary skills (“wax on, wax off”) and building from that to instill discipline and technique. He demands long hours of hard work from Daniel, but (spoiler alert!) it pays off in the end! While the bullies are bigger and more brutal, they are no match for Daniel’s newfound skills.

It seems to me that Christians in western society find themselves in a similar situation to Daniel in The Karate Kid.

Continue reading

Racism, Atheism, and Tribal Morality

Last summer in the aftermath of the tragic shooting of the silverback gorilla Harambe, I asked my agnostic and atheist friends on Facebook if the Cincinnati Zoo was morally justified in shooting a gorilla to save a small child. It was a very interesting Facebook thread.

Most of those friends did believe that a human life is more valuable than a gorilla’s (though not all did – and I told those people not to take offense if I declined a dinner invitation to their house – I prefer to eat with people who see a clear difference between me and what is served for dinner!). But what was interesting to me was the justification these nonbelievers offered for privileging human life over animal life. For most of them, this was simply a matter of choosing the human “tribe” over the gorilla “tribe.” As one friend said:

The only obligations that would seem to exist are within one’s own tribe.

This sentiment was shared by many participants on the thread. Another friend concluded: Continue reading

Blind Faith or Reasoned Faith?

Does faith consist of belief  without any evidence? Lots of people think so – Christians and non-Christians. I have heard many Christians speak of faith and reason as polar opposites. And I have also heard many atheists and agnostics brush aside the concept of faith as mere superstition.

Further, there are certain Scriptures that seem to support the notion that belief is simply a “blind leap of faith,” a decision to commit to Christ without any kind of evidence. After all, didn’t Jesus say to doubting Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29)? And didn’t the apostle Paul declare that “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7)? And didn’t the writer of the Book of Hebrews define faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1)? Continue reading