Saturday, August 9, 2008

The God Delusion

The Richard Dawkins of The God Delusion is arguably the most unpleasant author in all of Darwinian scientific literature: intellectually superior and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving hatemonger; an angry, totalitarian elitist; a scolding, christophobic, classist, culture-killing, history-revising, misinformed, dis-informing, preening, self-congratulatory, pompous bully.
That, in a nutshell, is my evaluation of the persona of the narrator - Richard Dawkins - in The God Delusion. Can a Christian learn from such a hostile voice? Can the acclaimed author, the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, the most prolific and powerful proponent of atheism in our day, be used by God to teach and chastise? God can make even an atheist’s rant into a song for his glory, and he has done so with Dawkins’s bestseller.

I found reading The God Delusion to be an experience that was offensive but also instructive, corrosive yet corrective and ultimately fruitful. And I believe any thinking Christian would profit from the exercise of working through Dawkins’s many arguments for atheism and objections to biblical faith.

Richard Dawkins is part of a company of visible and volatile atheists, the so-called “Four Horsemen,” whose coincidental attack on religion (predominantly American Christianity) was recently concentrated in a series of books released in 2006-2007. The God Delusion has been the most read, with over 1.5 million copies sold. God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation square the unholy quartet.

Dawkins’s principle argument (Ch 4 in the most popular American paperback edition - “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God”) rests on an unstated premise – a worldview pre-supposition of naturalism. I tried to take it apart and critique it in a talk recently given to my class in Christian Thinking at Cornerstone Church. The mp3 audio and companion handout are available in the “Bill’s Audio Teaching” section of this blog. Because the quality of the recording was nearly un-recoverable, you may want to download it and tweak it on your own player. If I get a better recording, I’ll switch it out right away. I’ll also try to clean up the transcript and post it, for those who prefer to read.

The best single source for a Christian perspective and critique of Dawkins’s book is The Dawkins Delusion by Alister McGrath. McGrath is an Oxford professor of historical theology and also holds a doctorate in molecular biology. He wrote with his wife, Joanna, who is a lecturer in the psychology of religion at the University of London. While many readers may not have the energy or interest to read The God Delusion on their own and instead opt for reading the McGrath’s book or some similar critique, there will be others who should take the challenge of listening to Dawkins not only as the sneering anti-religionist, but also as one whose misunderstandings and misgivings give Christian thinkers a foil for re-examining some important issues of faith and witness.

We’ve all become familiar with the grand “evolution vs. creation” debate in its many forms, gumming up the works from Parliament to U.S. public schools. Many of us who hold a view we believe to be consistent with the Bible find Darwinian models of evolution unacceptable, yet we hardly know why, much less how to dialogue with their proponents and defend a different view. My point in the talk is that one need not be a research biologist or astrophysicist to see the faults in Dawkins’s main thesis. Simple principles of analysis and reasoning reveal that Dawkins often speaks with more passion than precision in The God Delusion. Still, at his best, the significantly gifted professor enlightens his students, even those who wouldn’t want to be enrolled in the course.

The result is that those Christian readers who can critically interact with The God Delusion will find that some of the stances we have taken to defend our supernatural worldview and our faith in the God who stands behind it are not always strong ones. Instead, we have often demonized our opponents and sought to overpower them politically intellectually, that we might control the cultural battlefield.

Dawkins cannot be easily overpowered. But for that very reason, wrestling with the arguments he presents, if we are strong enough in our understanding of Christian faith and worldview, can only make us stronger and more honest, weaker in ourselves but stronger in faith and dependence on Christ. The exercise will, I trust, yield a more effective witness to the very voices whose stridency drowns out the same human heart-cry we all carry about in this broken world – the cry to be known by One whose knowing means salvation and eternal life.


Jeff said...


Excellent article. Though that book is probably the most extreme example, I think Christians (as long as their faith is sufficiently mature enough) would benefit from being exposed to Atheistic and non-Christian arguments. The mindset of "God said it, I believe it, and that settles it for me," lends nothing toward apologetics. Too many American Christians are largely naive.

At a secular university, I was required to read a book by Freud that "proved" that God did not exist. The argument was so convincing that, for the first and only time in my life, I seriously considered the idea that maybe we have all been deceived, and that there really is no God at all. Well, that doubt lasted no more than 5 minutes, after I thought upon the many times that God had worked powerfully and incredibly and miraculously in my life, as well as in the lives of others that I knew. The trump card was when I remembered how Jesus Christ had changed my life, and had changed the life of one of my brothers even more drastically. Plus, there had been numerous times that incredible, amazing things had happened in my life---and the sheer number of such amazing events was far more than could be rationalized by declaring them to be mere coincidence.

Also, I have debated online with Evolutionists (most of whom were Atheists) for years. When I first started, since Science was never my best subject, I felt very inept, and I felt like I was in over my head. The many large words and unfamiliar theories and discoveries that the Evolutionists were using as ammunition, along with their complicated and convincing arguments, made me feel like a minnow fighting a shark. For example, the first time an Evolutionist threw the phrase "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" at me, I was overwhelmed and felt powerless. However, after I found out that theory had been disproved 100 years ago, I was ecstatic.

Over the years, I have studied more and more, and have read quotes and testimonies of former Evolutionists (and also many quotes of current Evolutionists admitting surprising things), and my confidence in this area has grown tremendously. I don't mean my confidence in Creation, for that was not a problem (I grew up believing in Creation; then, school taught me to believe in Evolution, though I saw a clear conflict; when I got saved, I reverted back to believing in Creation, especially after I started reading things from the Institute for Creation Research). But now, I am no longer fearful when I talk to Evolutionists, because I can see through their clever arguments far more easily than I used to be able to, and I can see the absurdity in their arguments, as well as in Darwinian (i.e., macro) Evolution.

Bill Martin's Personal Ramblings said...

Thanks Jeff, for your very thoughtful and encouraging response!

Anyone else? Comments can be brief remarks, questions, challenges, etc.

Anonymous said...

sometimes I wonder why we get caught in these types of talks or writtings. not that I havn't thought of some of the same but the people in the world don't intellectualize the absence or presence of God they persue him (knowingly or not) by what they see or feel. I think that the devil is in the details so to speak and the big picture is what speaks loudest. For example, when the movie "the Passion" came out I was so engulfed on the picture I didn't care so much if the nails were in the hands or wrist. or if he was naked or partially clothed ect. I do enjoy the books and conversation just to not get too caught up in it. I am not a writter (as you can tell) i usually don't worry about caps or spelling sorry

Jake G said...

This may be outdated but I'll comment anyways, ha....
I've never thought of Dawkins as a "hostile voice." It's just our perspective which we need to lose. For example, to us, some of the things religious leaders say about atheists can be easily interpreted as condescending when really I guess they're just trying to protect their beliefs.
One more tid bit about Richard - he's an INTJ (like me). So I've been told that we have a way of coming across arrogant when it's only confidence. Mixed with a common love among INTJs for satire that may be where the elitist vibe is coming from. Where as I just interpret his wit and quasi-religious statements as good humor, not anything hostile. But if you're looking for a less aggressive atheistic position try Erich Fromm.
The most important thing I think we can do from either side is stop making generalizations about theists and atheists. Critique the beliefs but not the people, you know? Dawkins seems to attack the reasoning behind theist behavior while Christopher Hitchens is just anti-theistic.