The God Delusion? Revisiting Dawkins’ Central Argument

About twelve years ago evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins published The God Delusion. It has had a huge impact. As Dawkins Australian tour continues, it seems a good time to return to the book.

Critics have said it’s a book stronger on rhetoric than substantive arguments. While this may be the case, it is only fair to assess his book on his own terms, namely as a case for theism being a delusion.

. . . it is only fair to assess his book on his own terms, namely as a case for theism being a delusion.

The God Delusion
Richard Dawkins
The God Delusion
Richard Dawkins

Dawkins defines “a delusion as ‘a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence, especially as a symptom of psychiatric disorder’” (p. 5). So the question is, is theism true? Dawkins lists what he finds to be several false arguments, including Aquinas’ ways, the ontological argument, beauty, personal experience, scripture, admired religious scientists, and Pascal’s wager. He also points to natural selection, irreducible complexity, God-of-the-gaps, the anthropic principle, an evolutionary explanation of religion, why we don’t need God to be good, issues with the Bible, and other problems with religion such as moral judgement of homosexuality, the sanctity of life, and faith. These are all part of Dawkins’ cumulative case.

However he also presents a central argument (pp 157-8) which might be set out like this:

  1. How does the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arise?
  2. The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself.
  3. The temptation is a false one, because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer.
  4. The most powerful mechanism for bringing order is Darwinian evolution by natural selection.
  5. We don’t yet have an equivalent mechanism for physics. But some kind of multiverse theory might solve the problem.
  6. We should not give up hope … the relatively weak mechanistic theories we have at present are still self-evidently better than the self-defeating skyhook hypothesis of an intelligent designer.
  7. Therefore there is almost certainly no God.

What are we to make of this argument? William Lane Craig responds as follows:

  1. The conclusion does not follow from the premises
  2. At most Dawkins would be showing that you shouldn’t infer that God exists based on design, but there are other arguments for God (which to be fair, Dawkins does address elsewhere).
  3. Premise 3 is false, since “in order to recognise that an explanation is the best, you don’t have to have an explanation of the explanation.”
  4. Further, by Dawkins own definition of complexity, God is not complex.

Since the 2006 publication Dawkins has advanced the argument saying, “Darwin kicked [God] out of biology but physics remained more uncertain. Hawking is now administering the coup de grace.” This was in response to Stephen Hawking’s argument that:

“Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing … Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

So what are we to make of this? The above criticisms still remain, but even if we concede them, it seems Hawking has not succeeded. Craig explains: “Here it is said that the nothingness spoken of in Chapter 6 is not really nothingness after all but is space filled with vacuum energy. This goes to reinforce the conviction that the no boundary approach only describes the evolution of our universe from its origin at its ‘South Pole’ to its present state but is silent as to why the universe came to exist in the first place.”

What this implies is that Hawking and Mlodinow have not even begun to address the philosophical question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” For “nothing” in their vocabulary does not have the traditional meaning “nonbeing” but rather means “the quantum vacuum.”

Dawkins’ central argument is not, in my opinion, successful

Dawkins’ central argument is not, in my opinion, successful. There are other important issues he raises, to which Christians can also provide a sound response. We are justified in concluding that there is a God. The question Dawkins raises of whether God is a delusion is an important one and, depending on the neighbours that God brings into our lives, I hope we will be ready to speak the truth in love and give a reason for the hope we have in Christ.