With his new book, The God Delusion, Dawkins places himself at the head of what one journalist has called the "New Atheism." His book is one of several released over the last year that have attempted to reverse the rise of evangelical Christianity, and, to a lesser extent, fundamentalist Islam. He is the first person in the new atheist trinity, which includes Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, both of whom have written similar anti-religious tracts, and both of whom, like Dawkins, are filled with the spirit, and shouting their message from the street corners.
Before Dawkins begins the business of calling hellfire and brimstone down on the believers, however, he points his finger at those who pretend to be standing on the sidelines in the debate over the truth of religion and the existence of God. He first goes after the agnostics. With the earlier and more eloquent atheist George Bernard Shaw, Dawkins charges agnostics with the sin of being atheists without the courage of their convictions.
Well, most of them anyway. He makes a distinction between the kind of agnostic who temporarily suspends judgement until he has more evidence one way or another, and the kind of agnostic who believes that the question of God's existence is unanswerable. The first are the sheep, the second the goats. The first he can abide, but for the second he has little but disdain. It is this second school of thought that Dawkins refers to when he talks about the "poverty of agnosticism." It is here where Dawkins parts company with many of his allies in the scientific establishment, and it is here where Dawkins distinguishes himself from the great atheistic philosophies of the 20th century, returning instead to the 19th.
Although the title of "New" has been placed on his brand of atheism, Dawkins is an atheist of the old school. He is preachy, condescending, and a bit of a scold. Apparently impatient with philosophical subtleties, he seems to have shirked off the more sophisticated criticisms of early 2oth century philosophy. Beginning with Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, skeptical philosophers began to argue that religion was neither true nor false, but simply meaningless. This view received its most articulate treatment in A. J. Ayer's 1928 book, Language, Truth, and Logic. The first chapter of Ayer's book, "The End of Metaphysics," remains one of the few persuasive attacks on religious belief, although Ayer himself later gave up on much of the views expressed in the book. This view has dominated higher level discussions of religious truth questions ever since.
Dawkin's approach, however, harkens back to days of Robert Ingersoll, Joseph McCabe, and Joseph Lewis. He is not quite their equal in severity and lack of a sense of humor, but he rivals them in fervor. Like these stern atheists of old, Dawkins prefers to face religion head on, and his contempt for less direct approaches is transparent.
Dawkins first takes on Stephen Jay Gould, now conveniently dead (as are many of Dawkin's chosen opponents). Gould, a Harvard paleontologist and popular science writer, believed that religious questions such as the existence of God are simply not scientific questions, and that science cannot therefore adjudicate them. It is a version of the Two Truths doctrine of the medieval Arab philosopher Averroes, who held that there are truths of reason and truths of faith, and that truths in one sphere may be falsehoods in the other.
"[T]o cite old cliches," Dawkins quotes Gould as saying, "science gets the age of rocks, and religion the rock of ages; science studies how the heavens go, religion how to go to heaven." Dawkins will have none of it: "What are these ultimate questions," he asks, "in whose presence religion is an honored guest and science must respectfully slink away?" Dawkins denies that there can be two truths, one for science and one for religion: "... a universe with a creative superintendent would be a very different kind of universe from one without. Why is that not a scientific matter?"
In fact, Dawkins castigates the American scientific establishment for assuming this Two Truths doctrine in their debate with the Intelligent Design movement, denouncing the National Center for Science Education and their ilk as the "Neville Chamberlain School of Evolutionists." On this question, ironically, Dawkins is on the side of the Intelligent Design movement--and Christianity in general. Religious truth claims make a difference in the world, but while Christianity maintains the claims are true, Dawkins pronounces them false.
Dawkins summarizes the argument of his book this way:
Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution. Creative intelligences, being evolved, necessarily arrive late in the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it. God...is a delusion; and, as later chapters show, a pernicious delusion.
There are several problems with his argument that ultimately make The God Delusion a great disappointment. The first is his tendency to avoid proving his own theses in favor of simply assuming them and hoping the reader will find the implications of them as attractive and self-evident as he does. The scientist in him wants to test the predictability of his theory, in this case with speculative theories of how things might have come about solely by virtue of material conditions. He uses this method in his discussion of the origin of religion and of morality, and it falls flat.
His entire discussion of the origin of religion requires you to have previously accepted his naturalistic world view. "Knowing that we are products of Darwinian evolution..." he begins, and then we are off to the races. "The proximate cause of religion might be hyperactivity in a particular node of the brain," he declares. But the ultimate cause, he thinks, lies in his theory that religion is "a byproduct of something else." He then launches into various theories of what religious belief may have been useful for, all of which are pure speculation.
Dawkin's whole discussion of the naturalistic explanation of religion assumes that such an explanation renders the beliefs thus explained illusory. But if a naturalistic explanation for a belief renders it illusory, and all beliefs can be explained naturalistically, then atheism too can be explained naturalistically, and is therefore illusory. He who lives by naturalistic explanations must die by them.
All of Dawkin's explanations seem stifled and contrived by his own ideological materialism. He uses his naturalistic world view as a Procrustean bed into which he tries to fit everything, however much he has to hack and stretch it to fit. And what a small bed it is.
The second problem with Dawkin's book is the condescending tone with which he dismisses the arguments of those with whom he disagrees. One religious argument is "amusing, if rather pathetic," another "a joke," another "silly," and another "a grotesque piece of reasoning." This glib attitude particularly plagues the section of the book dealing with the traditional arguments for Christianity.
St. Thomas's cosmological arguments for God's existence--that the universe requires an explanation--"are easily...exposed as vacuous." Anselm's ontological argument for God's existence is "infantile." And William Paley's design argument, he says, Charles Darwin "blows out of the water."
And where simple pejoratives won't do, and arguments actually employed, Dawkins fails to impress. In response to C. S. Lewis's trilemma--that Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic, or God Himself--Dawkins simply posits the possibility that Jesus was honestly mistaken, despite the fact that anyone familiar with the force of this argument knows that is certainly not a possibility. And besides, "historically it is complete nonsense." Dawkins asserts that there is no good historical evidence that Jesus thought he was divine, but his response to the wealth of evidence that he did is nowhere to be found. He questions the historical existence of Jesus, a belief that has few adherents outside its friendly home in liberal theological seminaries.
In the end, Dawkins admits that Jesus probably existed, but that the Biblical documents are unreliable, his only argument being that "reputable" Biblical scholars (undoubtedly defined as those with whom Dawkins agrees) question them.
Somehow it all seems too easy.
Even if you didn't recognize the lack of philosophical sophistication in Dawkin's attempted refutations, you notice immediately that Dawkins has trouble even conceiving how anyone could ever have been convinced by these arguments. This is not only an intellectual weakness in Dawkin's approach, but a rhetorical one. Somehow, you are more persuaded by the detractors of a position who appreciate the strength of their opponents positions than those, like Dawkins, who don't. You feel as if the person hasn't really confronted the power of the arguments against his own position, and you therefore wonder how it would affect his opinion if he did.
In too many cases in the book Dawkins is justified in his dismissiveness toward the arguments he takes on, but only because he has cherry picked the weakest arguments for theism. And this is the third great deficiency of the book.
Outside of a few places in the second section of the book, Dawkins boxes at shadows that seem a poor imitation of historic theism. A close inspection of the index reveals how little familiarity Dawkins has with modern Christian apologetics. He mentions only a small handful of great modern Christian thinkers. There is even a passing mention of G. K. Chesterton. But none of these are carefully considered.
He admits Lewis into his book briefly (and, as we said, dismissively), but where is J. Gresham Machan, Cornelius Van Til, and John Warwick Montgomery, or, more contemporaneously, Alvin Plantinga, J. P. Moreland, and Francis Beckwith? They are glaringly absent. Instead, Dawkins prefers to take on the likes of Pat Robertson, Oral Roberts, Jesse Helms, and Fred Phelps, the fundamentalist minister of Westboro Baptist Church who pickets funerals with signs saying that "fags" are "going to Hell". These names constitute a sort of religious bum-of-the-month club that allows Dawkins to avoid fighting the real contenders.
In his debate with the atheist philosopher C.E.M. Joad (who later became a Christian) in the first part of the 20th century, Catholic writer Arnold Lunn pointed out that a position must be judged on the basis of the strongest arguments for it, not the weakest ones you can find.
The God Delusion has received the usual plaudits from the expected sources. But criticism has come from places well outside the religious community. Two of the most stinging critiques have come from the philosopher Thomas Nagel, and literary critic Terry Eagleton. And indeed everything that Dawkin's attempts in The God Delusion has been done better in some other book. A reader interested in a naturalistic explanation of religion and a critical view of the historicity of Christianity will find it stated more convincingly in H. L. Mencken's Treatise on the Gods. Those who are looking for a philosophically sophisticated attack on theism would be better off with Ayer's Language, Truth, and Logic. And, ironically, a much better argument against design in nature from an evolutionary perspective is Dawkin's own Blind Watchmaker.
And speaking of Mencken, atheism's last great popularizer, Dawkins seems clearly to be trying to emulate him, but to little affect. Mencken's attacks on religion were informed with a real wit that Dawkins sorely lacks. Mencken also had a poetic sense of the world that seems missing in Dawkins. Without the aesthetic appeal of Mencken, Dawkin's condescension sounds more akin to the more pedestrian likes of Madelaine Murray O'Hair. It wouldn't sound entirely out of place in this book to hear Dawkins utter an O'Hair line such as, "Jesus wasn't worthly to lick my boots."
Mencken was the last of the old school atheists, who openly declared their opinion that religion was absurd, and spared no effort in running it down. Mencken considered religious adherents to be boobs, largely because he considered most everyone to be boobs. Dawkins, however, is more selective in his disdain, choosing to scorn only the believers.
This refusal to take religious views seriously prevents Dawkins from convincingly dealing with them, and it is this consideration that prevents us from judging atheism on the basis of Dawkin's book. If we did, we would only be engaging in the very behavior that mars Dawkin's book itself: judging a position by something less than the best arguments for it.