Saturday, January 1, 2000

The Euthyphro Dilemma

Many freshman philosophy students find themselves confronted with the Euthyphro dilemma, a question often posed to convince us that God's existence is superfluous for our moral lives. The dilemma gets its name from the fact that it first appears in Plato's dialogue titled The Euthyphro and has popped up frequently in the philosophical literature ever since.

I'd like to share some thoughts on it over the course of two posts with the caveat that much of what I say is not original with me and that whatever might be original I offer with the humble recognition that it could well be nonsense.

With that caution in mind let's look at the dilemma. It's often put in the form of the following question:

Is something morally good because God commands it or does God command it because it is good?

The question seeks to offer theists, at least those who hold to a divine command theory of ethics, two unpalatable choices. If the theist chooses the first option then presumably had God commanded us to be cruel, cruelty would be morally good, a state of affairs which seems at the very least counterintuitive.

If the second alternative is chosen then good seems to be independent of God, existing apart from God, and rendering God unnecessary for the existence of good or "right."

I think, though, that the choices with which the dilemma confronts us are unable to carry the weight placed upon their shoulders. To see why let's start with a definition for "moral good."

Let's stipulate that moral good is that which conduces to human happiness and well-being.

It may be argued that we don't need God to know what conduces to human well-being and thus we can know what is good without having to believe in God. This may be true, but it misses the point.

First, our problem is not with recognizing good so much as it is explaining why God is still necessary for good to exist. Just because we can recognize good without believing in God doesn't mean that God is not necessary for there to be good. What is good is contingent upon the kind of beings we are, and the way we are is contingent upon God. We have the nature we do because God created us this way. Thus, what conduces to our well-being is a function of God's design.

We can no more say that God is irrelevant to our well-being than we could say that just because we know that clean oil is conducive to our car's well-being that therefore the engineers who designed the car are irrelevant to our knowing that we should change the oil periodically. Oil is "good" for the car because that's how the engineers made the car.

Secondly, even if belief in God is not necessary for one to know or recognize what conduces to well-being it is nevertheless necessary that there be a God in order for us to think we have a non-arbitrary duty to care about the well-being of others. If there is no God there is no moral obligation to concern ourselves with the good of others or to do anything else, for that matter. We may want to help others flourish, of course, but the belief that we should is completely arbitrary. If we didn't care about others, or even if we worked against the good of others, we wouldn't be committing some grievous moral offense. Just because something is good doesn't mean we ought to do it, at least not unless we are assuming that we ought always to do what conduces to other people's happiness and well-being. But why should we assume such a thing? Where does this premise come from? Why should I not just promote my own well-being and let others fend for themselves? Without God there's no real answer to these questions.

Thus, God's existence is crucial, not so that we can recognize good, perhaps, but rather as a ground for both the existence of good and for our duty to do good to others.

So, let's return to the dilemma. Consider again the second horn. Does God command, say, kindness because kindness is good? Is the good of kindness independent of God? Does it exist apart from God?

I don't think so. Goodness is an essential element of God's being. Goodness is no more separable from God than a triangle is separable from the property of having just three angles. Goodness is ontologically dependent upon God's existence much as sunlight is ontologically dependent upon the sun. If there were no sun, sunlight would not exist. If there were no God then moral goodness as a quality of our actions would not exist. Actions which lead to human well-being would have no moral value any more than a cat nursing her young has moral value even though her act conduces to their well-being. We would not consider the cat evil if it refused to nurse its young, nor, if there is no God, would we be able to judge a man objectively evil if he practiced cruelty.

God commands love because he has made us to be the sort of beings which flourish, generally, when nurtured in love, and he has made us this way because it is his essential nature to be loving. Love is not one thing and God another. God is love.

But what of the first horn of the dilemma? What if instead of loving God were hateful and cruel? Would hate and cruelty then be good? We'll consider those questions next time.


Yesterday we took a look at the challenge posed by the Euthyphro dilemma to those who believe that God's existence is a necessary condition for any meaningful, non-subjective, non-arbitrary ethics. We began by considering the second horn of the dilemma which we stated as follows:

Is an act morally good because God commands it or does God command it because it is good?

In this post I'd like to reflect on the first of the two horns: Is good simply whatever God commands? Would cruelty be good if God commanded it?

If we stipulate that God is omnibenevolent and that good is that which conduces to human happiness then the latter question seems to me to be an incoherent act description.

The question of God commanding cruelty presupposes a state of affairs in which a being whose essence it is to always do that which ultimately conduces to human well-being and happiness nevertheless commands us to do something which produces gratuitous suffering and pain. There seems to be a logical conflict in that.

In other words, if goodness is as we've defined it, and if God is good, then it's logically impossible for cruelty to be part of his nature or for him to command cruelty or anything else which would conflict with ultimate human well-being and happiness. It would require of God that he issue a command that is in opposition to his own nature. It's like asking whether there is something which a being which knows everything doesn't know.

So, the answer to the question of whether God commands us to love because love is good or whether love is good because God commands it, seems to me to be "neither." God commands us to love because it is his desire to have the world conformed to his own essential nature which is love.


Evolutionary Ethics

Evolutionary Ethics (Part I)

The idea that our moral sense is a product of human evolution has been around ever since Darwin, but in all those years it has never managed to convince most philosophers that it's plausible. Marc Hauser at Edge takes another stab at it in an article titled Biology (Not Religion) Equals Morality. There's much to think about (and to criticize) in his essay so I'd like to offer an analysis over the next several days. This post will be part I of the series.

Hauser writes:

For many, living a moral life is synonymous with living a religious life. Just as educated students of mathematics, chemistry and politics know that 1=1, water=H2O, and Barack Obama=US president, so, too, do religiously educated people know that religion=morality.

As simple and pleasing as this relationship may seem, it has at least three possible interpretations.

First, if religion represents the source of moral understanding, then those lacking a religious education are morally lost, adrift in a sea of sinful temptation. Those with a religious education not only chart a steady course, guided by the cliched moral compass but they know why some actions are morally virtuous and others are morally abhorrent.

Actually, it's not so much a lack of religious education which casts one adrift, it's the lack of any objective ground for moral judgment and moral obligation. If morality is not rooted in the goodness of a transcendent moral authority then it's entirely rooted in human subjectivity and what's moral is simply a matter of whatever feels right to me. Any ethics that seeks to ground itself in something other than God ultimately founders on the shoals of subjectivity, and, as we'll see Hauser's attempt is no exception.

Second, perhaps everyone has a standard engine for working out what is morally right or wrong but those with a religious background have extra accessories that refine our actions, fueling altruism and fending off harms to others.

Well, at least those who understand Christianity do. The "extra accessories" that the Christian has at her disposal are the twin motivators of love for, and gratitude to, God. The reason why there are relatively few charities run by atheists is that motives rooted in evolution will almost always drive people toward egoism rather than altruism. Love and gratitude, especially when directed toward something or someone beyond ourselves, are the most powerful incentives anyone has for caring about others, and the atheist has denied himself access to these resources.

Third, while religion certainly does provide moral inspiration, not all of its recommendations are morally laudatory. Though we can all applaud those religions that teach compassion, forgiveness and genuine altruism, we can also express disgust and moral outrage at those religions that promote ethnic cleansing, often by praising those willing to commit suicide for the good of the religious "team".

The obvious question Hauser raises for himself here is what standard is he using to judge compassion, forgiveness, and altruism as laudatory and ethnic cleansing as outrageous? Where does he get the idea that the former are good and the latter is bad? What is he basing this evaluation upon? The answer has to be either evolution or his own feelings, but if so how can either of these tell us that something is good or bad?

Indeed, an ethic based on evolution should see ethnic cleansing as a natural expression of the survival of the fittest gene pool. It should view suicide bombers as altruists sacrificing their own lives to promote the survival of the genes of the larger group of which he is a part.

In other words, Hauser wants to ground morality in the evolution of humanity, but as soon as he starts making moral judgments he finds himself forced to import values that have their source elsewhere. This is a problem that many naturalists face. They simply cannot consistently reconcile their naturalism with their moral sense. They see where the train of naturalist morality is taking them, and they don't like it so they make an irrational leap onto the back of Christian morality, and hope no one will notice as they piggyback upon the very assumptions they wish to discredit.

Evolutionary Ethics (Part II)

This post continues our discussion of Marc Hauser's essay Biology (Not Religion) Equals Morality in which he attempts to argue that morality can be, and should be, based upon our biological nature. You can read Part I here.

Hauser writes:

None of my comments so far are meant to be divisive with respect to the meaning and sense of community that many derive from religion. Where I intend to be divisive is with respect to the argument that religion, and moral education more generally, represent the only - or perhaps even the ultimate - source of moral reasoning. If anything, moral education is often motivated by self-interest, to do what's best for those within a moral community, preaching singularity, not plurality. Blame nurture, not nature, for our moral atrocities against humanity. And blame educated partiality more generally, as this allows us to lump into one category all those who fail to acknowledge our shared humanity and fail to use secular reasoning to practice compassion.

But why should we care about our "shared humanity?" Why should we practice compassion? Hauser never tells us. He just assumes that this is the right thing to do, but we need to ask him what fact of evolution or our biology is he basing this assumption upon? Indeed, what fact of our biology tells us that we should not act in our self-interest? To such questions Hauser gives no answer.

He adds this:

If religion is not the source of our moral insights - and moral education has the demonstrated potential to teach partiality and, therefore, morally destructive behaviour - then what other sources of inspiration are on offer?

One answer to this question is emerging from an unsuspected corner of academia: the mind sciences. Recent discoveries suggest that all humans, young and old, male and female, conservative and liberal, living in Sydney, San Francisco and Seoul, growing up as atheists, Buddhists, Catholics and Jews, with high school, university or professional degrees, are endowed with a gift from nature, a biological code for living a moral life.

This code, a universal moral grammar, provides us with an unconscious suite of principles for judging what is morally right and wrong. It is an impartial, rational and unemotional capacity. It doesn't dictate who we should help or who we are licensed to harm. Rather, it provides an abstract set of rules for how to intuitively understand when helping another is obligatory and when harming another is forbidden. And it does so dispassionately and impartially.

This is fascinating. It sounds exactly like what natural law philosophers and theologians have been saying for centuries. Indeed St. Paul writing to the church at Rome in the first century observed that everyone has a moral law "written on their hearts" (See Romans 2: 15).

But the question is not whether we have such a moral code or moral sense but rather where it comes from. This makes all the difference as to whether it is in any way incumbent upon us. If the code is inscribed on our hearts by God then it is presumably morally obligatory, but if it's the product of evolution then we're no more obligated to observe it than we are obligated to cover our mouth when yawning. If this law that Mr. Hauser thinks he has discovered is the product of blind chance and purposelessness which somehow conspired to fit us for life in the stone age then why should we live our lives by it today? It's merely an evolutionary vestige, like a man's beard, and can be ignored or removed with just as little moral consequence.

To argue that because we have a moral sense we are therefore bound to live by it is to commit the fallacy of deriving an "ought" from an "is" (sometimes called the naturalistic fallacy). It simply does not follow that because something is a certain way it therefore ought to be that way. Just because in some situations we feel compassion for others does not mean that if we didn't feel compassion we'd be in some sense morally wrong.

Moreover, evolution-based ethics are highly selective in what they deem right and wrong. On what basis, for instance, do we determine which of our evolved behaviors are morally good and which are not? Men are just as likely, perhaps more likely, to be selfish, cruel and violent as they are to be generous, kind, and peaceful. Both tendencies, according to Hauser's view, are part of our biological makeup and must result from our evolutionary development as a species. On what basis, then, does he prefer one behavior over the other? On what basis does he decide that we're required to do one and required to avoid the other? Why, exactly, should I care about the poor or care about the world my great-grandchildren will inherit? Why shouldn't I just live for myself and let the poor or future generations worry about their own survival? What answer based upon our biological make-up can Hauser possibly give to these questions?

The fact is that naturalistic, evolutionary ethics provide us no basis, other than one's individual feelings, for judging one behavior to be morally better than another and certainly no reason for thinking that we're in any way obligated to do one thing rather than its opposite. As a guide to moral behavior it is utterly useless.

Evolutionary Ethics (Part III)

This post concludes our discussion of Marc Hauser's essay Biology (Not Religion) Equals Morality in which he attempts to argue that morality can be, and should be, based upon our biological nature. You can read Parts I and II here and here.

Mr. Hauser's essay continues by presenting us with examples of moral dilemmas from which he draws the wrong conclusion:

... if five people in a hospital each require an organ to survive, is it permissible for a doctor to take the organs of a healthy person who happens to walk by the hospital? Or if a lethal gas has leaked into the vent of a factory and is headed towards a room with seven people, is it permissible to push someone into the vent, preventing the gas from reaching the seven but killing the one? These are true moral dilemmas - challenging problems that push on our intuitions as lay jurists, forcing us to wrestle with the opposing forces of consequences (saving the lives of many) and rules (killing is wrong).

Based on the responses of thousands of participants to more than 100 dilemmas, we find no difference between men and women, young and old, theistic believers and non-believers, liberals and conservatives. When it comes to judging unfamiliar moral scenarios, your cultural background is virtually irrelevant.

Well, maybe, but it shouldn't be. I would be among the last to say that moral choices are never excruciatingly difficult, but, in the cases that Hauser cites, not so much. The Christian is guided by one overarching principle: Always do the act which maximizes compassion and justice. In the scenarios that Hauser constructs it would be manifestly unjust to take organs from an unwilling passerby and equally unjust to push someone into the vent to save others, even if the others were children, even if they were your own children (surely an individual should jump into the vent himself rather than push another into it).

Hauser assumes, apparently, that everyone thinks in utilitarian terms which require of us that we produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number. A utilitarian could superficially justify sacrificing the happiness of one innocent person in order to maximize the happiness of many, but a Christian cannot.

What guides your judgments is the universal and unconscious voice of our species, a biological code, a universal moral grammar....If this code is universal and impartial, then why are there are so many moral atrocities in the world? The answer comes from thinking about our emotions, the feelings we recruit to fuel in-group favouritism, out-group hatred and, ultimately, dehumanisation.

Actually the answer is because atheism offers us no reason why we should not submit to our emotions, nor does it offer us any reason why we should care about anyone but ourselves, but that aside, on what biological or evolutionary grounds does Mr. Hauser condemn in-group favoritism or out-group hatred? These behaviors are as natural to our species as breathing. They've been encoded in our DNA by millenia of evolution. Why, in an atheistic view of things, are they wrong? What is the standard Mr. Hauser is smuggling in here in order to judge them as wrong?

It can't be that he finds warrant for disdaining them in our biological nature because these behaviors are fundamentally ingrained in that nature. It can't be that evolution gives him reason to condemn them because on his view evolution is responsible for their existence.

Mr. Hauser wants to say that out-group hatred is wrong but he can't tell us why. He wants to say, in effect, that there is a natural law written on our hearts that forbids such behavior, but no natural "law" rooted in our evolutionary development can be morally obligatory (see part II). Favoritism or hatred can only be wrong if the source of the natural law is a transcendent moral authority, and that's something Hauser's atheism does not allow.

Consider the psychopath, Hollywood's favourite moral monster. Clinical studies reveal that they feel no remorse, shame, guilt or empathy, and lack the tools for self-control. Because they lacked these capacities, several experts have argued that they lack the wherewithal to understand what is right or wrong and, consequently, to do the wrong thing. New studies show, however, that this conclusion is at least partially wrong. Psychopaths know full well what is right and wrong but don't care. Their moral knowledge is intact but their moral emotions are damaged. They are perfectly normal jurists but perfectly abnormal moral actors. For the psychopath, other humans are no different from rocks or artefacts. They are disposable.

In fact, if naturalism is true we should all be moral psychopaths. Remorse, guilt, shame, etc. are simply illusions that deceive us into thinking we've done something terribly wrong when in fact we haven't. Now that we're enlightened and realize, as atheist Michael Ruse puts it, that "morality is just an illusion fobbed off upon us by our genes in order to get us to cooperate," we should shed these emotions like a growing child sheds his fear of the dark and face the fact that we have nothing to feel guilty about because there's no such thing as guilt.

Guilt can only exist in a world in which our behavior stands condemned by a competent moral judge. In the world of the naturalist there are no moral judges, only, in Richard Dawkins' words, "blind, pitiless indifference."


Science Vs Religion

The recent issue of The New Republic contains an essay by Darwinian biologist Jerry Coyne on why he believes there can be no rapprochement between science and "religion." I place the word religion in quotes because it's a slippery term and Coyne never really defines what he means by it. At any rate, over the next several days I'd like to offer a few thoughts on Coyne's column.

He starts off talking about Darwinian evolution, the belief that all life arose through blind, purposeless physical processes:

The ideas that made Darwin's theory so revolutionary are precisely the ones that repel much of religious America, for they imply that, far from having a divinely scripted role in the drama of life, our species is the accidental and contingent result of a purely natural process.

This is an important point, one that's often lost on people. The intellectual conflict today is not between "religion" and evolution. There's no necessary incompatibility between the two, not even between young-earth creationism and evolution (as I hope to point out in a future post). The conflict, rather, is between Darwinian evolution and the belief that an intellect is involved in the creation of the world. Darwinism denies any role for purpose, intention, or mind in the generation and diversification of life and it is this view, which is at bottom a non-scientific, philosophical belief, which many religious people reject.

Coyne goes on to lament that:

[W]hile 74 percent of Americans believe that angels exist, only 25 percent accept that we evolved from apelike ancestors.

Little wonder, actually. Perhaps three out of four people find it easier to believe that angels exist than to believe that a process like the Krebs cycle or the human brain could have evolved by pure, mindless serendipity. How many people have ever studied the question of human evolution - at least subsequent to their high school graduation, at which ceremony their minds are purged of all that they learned over the last couple of years anyway? What reason do most people have at hand for believing that we evolved from apelike ancestors? Should they believe it just because the scientific high priests like Coyne tell them they should? If so, how is that different than the warrant people have for believing, on the authority of their pastors and priests, in angels?

In any event, it's hard to draw any conclusions about the significance of statistics like these. Likewise with this factoid that Coyne serves up:

As Karl Giberson notes in [his book] Saving Darwin, "Most people in America have a neighbor who thinks the Earth is ten thousand years old."

I'm not sure what we should make of this bit of snideness, either. Should we assume that there are a lot of uneducated bumpkins in the world, or are we to conclude that a lot of these young-earthers are so anti-intellectual that they refuse to allow evidence to trump their religion? Probably Coyne intends for us to think both, but refusing to allow evidence to trump one's deepest convictions is not just a fault of the average guy in the neighborhood. There are a lot of educated people who are just as impervious to evidence as Coyne believes young-earthers to be. Among our professoriat, for example, there are many who, despite all the empirical evidence to the contrary, still believe that people are better off under Marxist communism than under any other political-economic system. If we're going to poke fun at beliefs that are at odds with the evidence maybe beliefs for which there is direct empirical refutation should be held in even greater derision than those against which the evidence is more indirect. In any case, Coyne's attempt to discredit American religiosity by associating it with young-earth creationism is no more persuasive than trying to discredit philosophical materialism by associating it with communism.


We begin Part II of our consideration of biologist Jerry Coyne's essay in The New Republic on the incompatibility of science and religion with this passage by Coyne:

True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind. (It is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers. )....The real question is whether there is a philosophical incompatibility between religion and science. Does the empirical nature of science contradict the revelatory nature of faith? Are the gaps between them so great that the two institutions must be considered essentially antagonistic?

Science and religion are incompatible, implies Coyne, because science accepts only what can be empirically demonstrated whereas religion admits of truths that are not testable and thus not subject to empirical confirmation. Would that this were true. If it were then there might not be any real conflict since naturalistic scientists would recognize the limits to their domain. As it is, there's conflict for precisely the reason that many scientists wish to extend the realm of science beyond the empirical to encompass all reality and thought, including the metaphysical, while at the same time criticizing religion for making metaphysical claims and being insufficiently scientific. Science serves for many scientists as a kind of Trojan horse that enables them to smuggle into their work and writing a materialistic, atheistic worldview that has no empirical warrant.

A few examples of this overreach may suffice. Scientists, either some or most, hold fast to the following things, none of which are supported by any empirical evidence:

1. The Many Worlds Hypothesis: The idea that ours is just one of a nearly infinite number of universes, all of which are closed off from each other thus defying detection.

2. The Oscillating Universe Hypothesis: The theory that our universe has expanded and collapsed an infinite number of times.

3. String theory: The idea that the fundamental units of material substance are unimaginably tiny vibrating filaments of energy.

4. The existence of other dimensions: The theory that the four dimensions of space-time are only part of physical reality.

5. The Principle of Uniformity: The assumption that the laws and properties of the universe are homogenous and constant everywhere throughout the cosmos.

6. The Assumption of Uniformitarianism: The idea that the same processes and forces at work in the world today have always been at work at essentially the same rates.

7. The Scientific Method: The idea that there is a particular methodology that defines the scientific process and which ought to be followed.

8. The Law of Parsimony: The principle that assumes that the simplest explanation which fits all the facts is the best.

9. The assumption that human reason is trustworthy: The notion that a faculty which has evolved because it made us better fit to survive is also coincidentally a dependable guide to something else, truth, which has no necessary connection to human survival.

10. The assumption that we should value truth: The idea that truth should be esteemed more highly than competing values, like, for instance, personal comfort or group advancement.

11. The assumption that there is objective truth: This is the assumption that there is truth about the world that is independent of our own subjective biases, perceptions, etc.

12. The preference in science for naturalistic explanations: This is a preference based upon an untestable assumption that all knowable truth is found only in the natural realm.

13. Naturalistic abiogenesis: The belief that natural forces are sufficient in themselves to have produced life.

14. The assumption that if something is physically possible and mathematically elegant then, given the age of the universe, it probably happened.

15. The assumption that the cosmos is atelic: I.e. that it has no purpose.

16. The assumption that there's a world external to our own minds.

17. Materialistic reductionism: The conviction that all phenomena, including mental phenomena, can be ultimately explained solely in terms of physics and chemistry.

18. Assumption that the universe arose out of a "vacuum matrix" rather than out of nothing.

19. The appropriateness of making ethical claims regarding the environment, climate change, nuclear power, cloning, or genetic engineering. Ethical judgments lie beyond the scope of science but that doesn't stop scientists, qua scientists, from making them.

20. The Concept of the Meme: According to biologist Richard Dawkins memes are the cultural analog to genes. They are ideas or customs that are believed by Dawkins and others to get passed along according to their survival value rather than their truth value (see #9, above). An example of this, unfortunately, is the concept of the meme itself.

21. The criteria by which we distinguish science from non-science.

All of these transcend the realm of empirical science yet scientists like Coyne doubtless accept most of them. There's nothing wrong with this, of course, it's just that it's a bit disingenuous to claim that scientists confine themselves only to what is testable and empirical, as though scientists were concerned merely with accumulating and compiling facts about nature and not in trying to interpret what those facts mean. As soon as they do try to decipher the meaning of their data, however, they're doing the same thing that religion does, and that's why there's conflict.

There are two competing metanarratives vying for people's allegiance. One claims that nature is all there is and the other claims that nature, by itself, is inadequate to explain all we know about ourselves and the cosmos. Neither metanarrative is scientific, they're both metaphysical. The former seeks to infiltrate the culture under the guise of science, but it goes well beyond the pursuit of empirical knowledge. The naturalist, or materialist, believes that he alone should have the right to determine the meaning of scientific data, but why should he be granted that privilege? Why should an atheistic worldview be awarded supremacy over all competitors?

The role of science is to discover the data, and the role of philosophy is to determine which explanation best conforms to the data we have. Thus the conflict is not between science and religion, but between two disparate philosophical approaches to the data: atheism and theism, naturalism and supernaturalism. In that conflict science, properly understood, is neutral.


In the New Republic column we've been reviewing biologist Jerry Coyne makes some interesting claims about the relationship between science and religion. Some of what he says is helpful and some is not. An example of the latter is this graph:

[A]ll creationists share four traits. First, they devoutly believe in God. No surprise there, except to those who think that ID has a secular basis. Second, they claim that God miraculously intervened in the development of life, either creating every species from scratch or intruding from time to time in an otherwise Darwinian process. Third, they agree that one of these interventions was the creation of humans, who could not have evolved from apelike ancestors. This, of course, reflects the Judeo-Christian view that humans were created in God's image. Fourth, they all adhere to a particular argument called "irreducible complexity." This is the idea that some species, or some features of some species, are too complex to have evolved in a Darwinian manner, and must therefore have been designed by God. Blood clotting in vertebrates, for example, is a complex sequence of enzyme reactions, involving twenty proteins that interact to produce the final clot.

As it happens Coyne is presenting us with a straw man. First, he conflates creationism with ID and then claims that because all creationists believe in God therefore all IDers believe in God. This is false, of course. IDers believe in a designer. Some think the designer is the God of the Bible, but others have no idea who or what it is. It could be an Aristotelian prime mover, a Platonic demiurge, or, for all we know, an inhabitant of one of the infinite worlds posited by multiverse enthusiasts.

Second, Coyne asserts that IDers all believe that God intervened at points in the evolution of life to create various forms, especially man. Some do believe this, of course, but it's simply false to claim that all do. One model of God's creative activity sees God not as an artist doing touch up work on a canvas but more like the bed of a braided river:

Just as the bed guides the flow of water as it splits and wanders toward its destination, so, too, might God underlie the entire process of evolution leading it at every moment in the direction he wants it to flow. In this model, God's intervention is not a one-time or periodic event, but rather a continuous, moment by moment channeling of the flow of evolutionary progress.

Coyne continues:

ID turns out to be simply a "god of the gaps" argument--the view that if we do not yet comprehend a phenomenon completely, we must throw up our hands, stop our research, and praise the Lord. For scientists, that is a prescription for the end of science, for perpetual ignorance.

The problem for Coyne's thesis here is that it's refuted by the fact that people like Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Boyle, Faraday, Maxwell and so many others, ID advocates all, didn't just throw up their hands and say "God did it" and proceed to look for some other line of work. These men spawned the age of science and they all believed exactly what Coyne claims to be fatal to the scientific enterprise: That the world reveals evidence of having been intelligently engineered.

The "god of the gaps" argument is invoked by people who have no explanation for a phenomenon, but modern ID isn't based on what we don't know, its based on what we do know. What we know is that the biosphere is information-rich and that information, whenever we have otherwise encountered it, has always and invariably been the product of intelligence. The information coded in our DNA, for example, or the information on display in something like the Krebs cycle, or biomolecular machines, have their analogs in computer software and hardware and what we know is that these are certainly not artifacts produced by blind, purposeless forces.

Coyne goes on to say:

But no serious scientist wants evolution to become anything like a religion, or even a source of ethics and values. That would mean abandoning our main tool for understanding nature: the resolution of empirical claims with empirical data.

Evidently Coyne hasn't read Richard Dawkins' God Delusion in which Dawkins grounds all of life in an evolutionary worldview. And what's this about resolving empirical claims with empirical data? Where are the data to support the claim that life arose by a purely naturalistic process? Or the claim that consciousness is a purely physical, material phenomenon? Or that this world is one of an infinite number of worlds? Where are the data that show that blind, purposeless chance and natural selection have produced butterfly metamorphosis, or sexual reproduction, or insect flight, or human consciousness?

A lot of people are impressed by the astonishing fine-tuning of cosmic parameters and forces (see here and here) and impute this to intelligent, intentional engineering, but not Coyne. He's committed, we are to understand, only to what the data show. He'll admit only the empirical facts of the matter. So how does he explain cosmic fine-tuning? With empirical data? Alas, he offers us only vague hopes, wishes, and speculative metaphysics:

[S]cientists have other explanations [for the universe's exquisite precision], ones based on reason rather than on faith. Perhaps some day, when we have a "theory of everything" that unifies all the forces of physics, we will see that this theory requires our universe to have the physical constants that we observe. Alternatively, there are intriguing "multiverse" theories that invoke the appearance of many universes, each with different physical laws; and we could have evolved only in one whose laws permit life. The physicist Lee Smolin has suggested a fascinating version of multiverse theory. Drawing a parallel with natural selection among organisms, Smolin proposed that physical constants of universes actually evolve by a type of "cosmological selection" among universes. It turns out that each black hole--and there are millions in our universe--might give rise to a new universe, and these new universes could have physical constants different from those of their ancestors. (This is analogous to mutation in biological evolution.) And universes with physical constants close to the ones we see today happen to be better at producing more black holes, which in turn produce more universes. (This resembles natural selection.) Eventually this process yields a population of universes enriched in those having just the right properties to produce stars (the source of black holes), planets, and life. Smolin's theory immensely raises the odds that life could appear.

When Coyne says there are explanations "based on reason, not faith" what he actually means is that there are explanations based on materialism not on intelligence. After all, he himself is displaying a powerful faith that ultimately a plausible materialist explanation will be found.

In any event, such a theory as he proposes might be true, who knows? But that's the point. There's no empirical evidence for these hypotheses. Our Knight of Faith has tacitly admitted that his belief is based not on empirical facts at all but upon an unshakeable metaphysical faith-committment to naturalism.

Moreover, if there is a multiverse in which all logically possible conditions prevail then there might well be a world in which there dwells a being capable of creating a world like ours. If so, why could not our world represent the creative effort of such a being? In other words, by embracing the concept of the multiverse Coyne refutes his own argument that ID's designer has to be the God of the Bible.

Coyne seems to vaguely realize that he's wandered onto very thin ice and tries to explain why his faith in nature is better than belief in an intelligent agent:

[Belief in] the existence of multiverses does not require a leap of faith nearly as large as that of imagining a God.

This is interesting. He acknowledges that his views are based upon faith, not empirical data, but he justifies taking the "leap" by asserting that his leap is shorter than that of the IDer. How, though, does Coyne measure the size of such leaps? What metric does he use? Are such leaps subject to empirical quantification? Coyne thinks that the breath-taking precision of dozens of cosmic properties is easier to impute to the existence of a near infinity of contingent worlds, all having different constants and forces, none of which we have any evidence for, and whose origin itself would stand in need of an explanation, than it is to attribute it to the existence of a singular intelligence whose existence is not contingent upon anything. How does Coyne decide that the latter requires a greater leap of faith than the former?

And some scientific explanations of the anthropic principle are testable. Indeed, a few predictions of Smolin's theory have already been confirmed, adding to its credibility. It may be wrong, but wait a decade and we will know a lot more about the anthropic principle. In the meantime, it is simply wrong to claim that proposing a provisional and testable scientific hypothesis--not a "belief"--is equivalent to religious faith.

This is what the materialist usually winds up saying: "Wait a decade." He insists that empirical claims must be resolved with empirical data, but if the empirical data is lacking, materialist conclusions are drawn anyway. They're simply backed by a promissory note: "Just wait," the materialist urges. "Someday the empirical evidence will arrive, but in the meantime you must have faith that they will." This sounds very much like secular eschatology.

At any rate, if ID believes in a "God of the gaps" then materialism believes in a god of the promises. What Coyne apparently meant by resolving empirical claims with empirical data was that empirical claims must be resolved with empirical data or by nebulous promises of such data appearing in the future. Meanwhile, we are commanded to just believe and not question our scientific bishops.


Coyne set out to argue that religion and science are incompatible because they have different doxastic criteria (justifications for belief). It may be true that the claims of each require different sorts of warrant but that hardly makes them incompatible. Where, for example, is the conflict between the claim that birds migrate by the stars and the claim that God exists? Where's the incongruity between the belief that the universe is comprised mostly of dark matter and energy and the belief that an omnipotent, omniscient and personal God created it?

The incompatibility is not between religious belief and science but between religious belief and materialism. Materialism, however, is metaphysics, not science, and Coyne's tendency to conflate the two is ironic as we'll point out in the last paragraph.

Coyne writes:

In a common error, [Karl] Giberson confuses the strategic materialism of science with an absolute commitment to a philosophy of materialism. He claims that "if the face of Jesus appeared on Mount Rushmore with God's name signed underneath, geologists would still have to explain this curious phenomenon as an improbable byproduct of erosion and tectonics." Nonsense. There are so many phenomena that would raise the specter of God or other supernatural forces: faith healers could restore lost vision, the cancers of only good people could go into remission, the dead could return to life, we could find meaningful DNA sequences that could have been placed in our genome only by an intelligent agent, angels could appear in the sky. The fact that no such things have ever been scientifically documented gives us added confidence that we are right to stick with natural explanations for nature. And it explains why so many scientists, who have learned to disregard God as an explanation, have also discarded him as a possibility.

This is hard to follow. Coyne seems to want to say that the materialistic assumptions scientists employ are just a methodological tactic, but he winds up endorsing a kind of materialistic metanarrative. Moreover, the notion that the experience of certain phenomena would jar scientists out of their materialism hardly proves that their materialism is merely tactical. If it's true that scientists could be persuaded by empirical evidence to jettison their materialism it only means that they're open-minded and rational.

Even so, I think Coyne is mistaken about this. If any of the phenomena he mentions actually occurred, a materialist would immediately, and rightly, set about looking for a mechanical, natural explanation. If his search were unsuccessful he'd simply issue a promissory note and assure us that science will surely discover the causal mechanisms behind the phenomena eventually. Angels in the sky would be explained away as either mass hallucination events or the visitation of life-forms from other planets. Even were a DNA sequence or star pattern found that somehow spelled out "I, God, Made This" the materialist would simply shrug and say something like, "Given an infinity of worlds there has to be at least one where such an amazingly improbable pattern would exist." The point is that someone who doesn't want to believe in God will withhold belief as long as there is an "out" through which they can escape. Coyne is being a little naive if he thinks that materialist scientists could be persuaded to abandon their worldview so easily.

He goes on to say that:

Like Giberson, [biologist Ken] Miller rejects a literal interpretation of the Bible. After discussing the fossil record, he contends that "a literal reading of the Genesis story is simply not scientifically valid," concluding that "theology does not and cannot pretend to be scientific, but it can require of itself that it be consistent with science and conversant with it." But this leads to a conundrum. Why reject the story of creation and Noah's Ark because we know that animals evolved, but nevertheless accept the reality of the virgin birth and resurrection of Christ, which are equally at odds with science? After all, biological research suggests the impossibility of human females reproducing asexually, or of anyone reawakening three days after death.

Coyne raises an interesting question here, but muddies it up by seriously misrepresenting science. Science emphatically does not suggest that miracles are impossible. Science deals in probabilities, not possibilities. Indeed, there's very little that science declares impossible. The most science can "say" is that as far as any scientist has ever been able to observe under laboratory conditions, human virgins have never produced offspring and dead people have never revivified. Science qua science cannot say neither of these ever happened nor that they never could happen. Miracles are statistically improbable, they're not logically impossible.

Coyne really seems to be saying something like this: If materialism is true, miracles performed by a supernatural being are impossible. Materialism is true, therefore miracles are impossible. But if this is his argument it's not very persuasive since the truth of the second premise is very much open to dispute. The second premise is, in fact, a religious assumption about the world, as Roy Clouser points out, and it undergirds Coyne's science. This is ironic, as we said above, since Coyne is arguing in this essay that religion and science are incompatible even as he himself has no trouble harmonizing the two in his own life.


Coyne observes in his piece that:

Beginning with Plato, philosophers have argued convincingly that our ethics come not from religion, but from a secular morality that develops in intelligent, socially interacting creatures, and is simply inserted into religion for convenient citation.

With all due respect to Professor Coyne, the term "secular morality" is gibberish. There can be no secular morality except insofar as a group of people arbitrarily agree upon certain rules that have no basis in anything other than the subjective preferences of the people who agree to them. There's no reason to think that a morality so arrived at imposes any kind of obligation upon anyone and there's no reason to feel guilt if one breaks the rules. Only morality grounded in something transcendent can obligate us. So far from secular morality being inserted into religion, it actually piggy-backs on religion, claiming itself to be independent but all the while relying on religion to carry it and give it credibility.

He continues:

In the end, then, there is a fundamental distinction between scientific truths and religious truths, however you construe them. The difference rests on how you answer one question: how would I know if I were wrong? Darwin's colleague Thomas Huxley remarked that "science is organized common sense where many a beautiful theory was killed by an ugly fact." As with any scientific theory, there are potentially many ugly facts that could kill Darwinism. Two of these would be the presence of human fossils and dinosaur fossils side by side, and the existence of adaptations in one species that benefit only a different species. Since no such facts have ever appeared, we continue to accept evolution as true. Religious beliefs, on the other hand, are immune to ugly facts. Indeed, they are maintained in the face of ugly facts, such as the impotence of prayer.

I doubt very much that Darwinians would be dissuaded by the discovery of any of the things Coyne mentions. All such discoveries would do would be to inspire the true-believers to become more creative with their hypotheses. If human fossils were found together with dinosaur fossils then we would read about the possible mixing of rock strata or the surprising survival of dinosaurs long after they had previously been thought to have gone extinct. The Darwinist metanarrative certainly wouldn't be falsified by such finds, only a particular part of the overall theory would be considered in need of an adjustment.

But let's apply Coyne's "How would we know we were wrong" test to Darwinian beliefs about the origin of life. How would we know that life did not arise through blind, impersonal forces if, in fact, it did not? What "ugly fact" would falsify the claim that life is the product of those blind, impersonal forces? No one can offer a candidate, but Darwinian materialists nevertheless continue to insist that their speculations on the matter are scientific. Since no discovery could possibly falsify their belief that life arose purely mechanistically must we not disqualify such beliefs about abiogenesis from the domain of science?

Professor Coyne adds this:

There is no way to adjudicate between conflicting religious truths as we can between competing scientific explanations. Most scientists can tell you what observations would convince them of God's existence, but I have never met a religious person who could tell me what would disprove it. And what could possibly convince people to abandon their belief that the deity is, as Giberson asserts, good, loving, and just? If the Holocaust cannot do it, then nothing will.

I'm not sure what this is supposed to demonstrate other than that religious faith is not the same sort of thing as empirical science, but then nobody said that it was. Coyne is comparing apples and oranges. All anyone he has quoted in his article has said is that science and religion are compatible, not that they're identical. The appropriate comparison is between theistic belief and materialism. The very same phenomena that would falsify materialism, an unmistakable appearance by God, say, would serve to verify theism. On the other hand, if theistic belief cannot be falsified that simply means that materialism cannot be verified. So given this epistemic symmetry why does Coyne believe so adamantly that a scientist can consistently be a materialist but not a theist? How is a scientist's materialism any more compatible with his practice of science than would be his theism? They're both theological.

To be sure, particular religious beliefs may be incompatible with certain scientific beliefs, just as contrary scientific beliefs can be incompatible with each other, but it's one thing to say that a particular tenet of religion is incompatible with a tenet of science, it's quite another to say, as Coyne does, that religious belief is incompatible with science.


Inference to Best Explanation



In the wake of the recent onslaught of aggressive anti-theism Christian students might benefit from an argument with broad inter-disciplinary resonances couched in non-technical language that affords them assurance that their confidence in the existence of the God of traditional theism is not misplaced.

In the paper that follows I attempt to construct such an argument. The result is a recitation of a number of lines of evidence which, taken together, point to theism as the best explanation for the world and our own nature. This is sometimes referred to as inference to the best explanation, and as such it is a species of design argument, but unlike many traditional versions of design arguments it doesn't rely solely on cosmic or biological design. It includes these but also rests heavily upon what might be referred to as the existential facts of human nature. In the paper seventeen such evidences are considered:

  1. The fact that the universe had a beginning
  2. The fact of cosmic design
  3. The fact of biological information
  4. The fact of human consciousness
  5. The joy we experience in an encounter of beauty
  6. The fact that we believe our reason to be reliable
  7. Our sense that we have free will
  8. Our desire for answers to life's deepest questions
  9. Our sense of moral obligation
  10. Our sense of guilt
  11. Our belief in human dignity
  12. Our belief in human worth
  13. Our belief that there are basic human rights
  14. Our desire for justice
  15. Our need for meaning and purpose
  16. Our belief that we have an enduring self
  17. Our desire to survive our own death

In what follows it will be argued that theism provides an easier, more comfortable explanation for each of the above than does atheism. When folded together they amount to a powerful case for the proposition that it is reasonable to believe that a personal mind, a mind similar to that imputed to the God of Christian theism, undergirds the world.

I claim no originality for the arguments, or rather the premises of the argument which follows. Others have called attention to these things with more eloquence and brilliance than I can summon. What may perhaps be helpful, however, is to have these premises gathered into a single cumulative case for the reasonableness of theistic belief.


Among the indictments of religious believers recently registered by skeptics such as the coterie of anti-theists lead by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, et al. is that belief in God is at best irrational and at worst pernicious. Theism is all faith and no evidence, the believer is condescendingly assured, but should a theist try to pin down his antagonist and ask him exactly what he means by evidence, it often turns out that the word is being employed as a synonym for "proof."

Well, of course there's no proof that there is a personal God, but that's hardly a reason not to believe that one exists. We have proof for very little of what we believe about the world, yet we don't hold our beliefs less firmly for that.

The skeptic's claim that there's no evidence for God and that theistic belief is thus irrational is, ironically, the reverse of the truth. It is actually, in my view, more rational to believe that a personal transcendent creator of the universe exists than to disbelieve it. Moreover, if what I argue below is correct, the logical consequences of atheism turn out to be psychically and politically toxic. Indeed, though it may come as a surprise to some readers, almost all the evidence that counts on one side or the other of the question of belief in God rests more comfortably on the side of the believer. This is because almost every relevant fact about the world, and every existential characteristic of the human condition, makes more sense when viewed in the light of the hypothesis of theism than it does on the assumption of atheism. Put differently, the conclusion of theism is what philosophers call an inference to the best explanation. I don't mean to suggest that there are no facts about the world that militate against the existence of God - there are, of course. The existence of evil is the most troubling example. Nor do I mean to suggest that atheism can offer no account at all of the facts of human existence that I discuss in what follows. Perhaps it can. I only argue that on the assumption of atheism the facts are more difficult to explain, in some cases exceedingly so, than they are on the assumption of theism. If that is the case, it follows that it's more reasonable to believe that the explanation for them is the existence of a personal God.


The first of these facts, then, is our conviction that the universe must have had a cause and that it didn't cause itself. The universe is contingent, or seems to be. It's therefore prima facie reasonable to think that its existence depends upon something beyond itself. It's possible, perhaps, that it somehow created itself, but that seems counter-intuitive and ad hoc.

Many atheists tell us that the existence of the universe is just a brute fact and that nothing is gained by positing a Creator since the Creator Itself requires an explanation. As Del Ratzsch points out, however, this sort of reply, as common as it is, is not very compelling. He invites us to consider an analogy to the discovery on Mars of a perfect ten-meter cube of pure titanium (1). Most people would think that the cube was produced by aliens and would regard the cube as virtual proof that aliens existed. Suppose, though, that there are those who deny either the existence or relevance of aliens, claiming that the cube is just there - a brute fact of nature. Suppose, too, that when pressed for some further explanation, their reply was to point out that the advocates of the alien theory had no clue as to where the aliens came from or how they had manufactured the cube.

Nevertheless the inability to say anything much about the aliens doesn't count at all against the theory that aliens were responsible for the cube nor does it mean that the alien theory is on par with the brute fact theory. The existence of an intelligent alien manufacturer of the cube is an inference to the best explanation.

The second fact about the world that is easier to explain on the theistic rather than the atheistic hypothesis is that the parameters, forces and constants which govern the cosmos are exquisitely fine-tuned. Here is one example of the dozens which could serve:

If the initial density of matter in the universe had deviated by as little as one part in 10 to the 60th power (a value referred to by scientists as the "density parameter"), the universe would have either fallen back on itself or expanded too quickly for stars to form (2). This is an unimaginably fine tolerance.

Imagine a stack of dimes stretching across 10 to the 30th universes like our own. Let the dimes represent calibrations on a gauge displaying every possible value for the density parameter. Imagine, too, that a needle points to the dime representing the critical value. If the initial density of our cosmos deviated from that critical value by a single dime our universe, if it formed at all, would not be suitable for life.

Or imagine a console featuring dials and gauges for each of the dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of constants, parameters, and other cosmic contingencies which define the structure of our world. Imagine that each dial face shows trillions upon trillions of possible values. Each of those dials has to be calibrated to precisely the value to which it is actually set in our world in order for a universe to exist and/or for life to thrive.

Of course, it could be an astonishing coincidence that all the dials are set with such mind-boggling precision. Or it could be that there are a near infinite number of universes having all possible values and that ours just happens to be one that is perfectly calibrated for life. But not only is this an extraordinarily unparsimonious hypothesis, it also elicits the question of what it is that's generating these universes and what evidence we have that they even exist. It's much simpler to bow to Ockham and assume that there is just one universe and that its structure manifests a level of engineering of breath-taking precision, a conclusion perfectly compatible with the idea that there's an intelligent agent behind it all. "It's crazy," as Richard Swinburne says, "to postulate a trillion universes to explain the features of one universe, when postulating one entity (God) will do the job." (3)

One further point: Scientists assume as they study the universe that it is rational, that it lends itself to rational inquiry, but if so, then an entirely non-rational explanation for it seems less likely than an explanation which incorporates rational causes.

A third fact about the world from which we might infer that there is an intelligent agent involved somehow in its development is the existence of biological information. The biosphere is information-rich, a fact which raises the question where this information came from and how it got here. The naturalist's answer is that the information, such as we find in DNA and cellular processes, resulted from blind mechanistic forces acting purposelessly and randomly over eons of time. Such a feat is within the realm of the logically possible, of course, but if we're going to limit ourselves to the lessons of experience we must acknowledge that information whose provenience we can ascertain is always the product of an intelligent mind.

Random processes can produce highly improbable structures (like the particular pattern of craters on the moon) and they can produce very specific recognizable patterns (like the repetition of a single letter typed by a monkey), but what we've never observed a random, non-teleological process do is generate both (such as a computer program). Yet that is precisely what we have in the genetic code.

There may someday be a satisfactory naturalistic explanation for the origin of biological information, but until that day arrives the obvious existence of that information suggests an intelligent agent lurks somewhere in its history.

Another quality of the world that sits better on the assumption of theism than atheism, particularly atheistic materialism, is the existence of human consciousness. How does it happen, for example, that mere matter can produce qualia (e.g. the sensation of red or the taste of sweet)? How do electrochemical reactions in our neurons produce a value, a doubt, gratitude, regret, expectation, or frustration, boredom, or disappointment? How does material substance produce forgiveness, resentment, or wishes, hopes, and desires? How does it appreciate (e.g. beauty, music, or a book)? How does it want, worry, have intentions, or understand something? How does matter come to be aware of itself and its surroundings? How does matter come to hold beliefs?

These are vexing questions for a materialist view of the world. It may be that if we put the proper chemicals in a flask under the appropriate conditions the flask would become aware of itself, but we have no idea how it could do so, (4) and the belief that it could is simply an article of materialist faith.

In other words, on the assumption that matter is all there is consciousness is inexplicable. The existence of consciousness suggests that material substance is not the only constituent of reality, which may be one reason why eliminative materialists pretty much deny the existence of consciousness.

Related to the matter of qualia is the question of beauty, or more precisely, why it is that gazing at, or listening to, something beautiful should fill us with delight, or even rapture. It's possible, I suppose, to formulate some convoluted ad hoc hypothesis in terms of purposeless physical forces acting over billions of years on dozens of fortuitous mutations to produce response mechanisms to certain stimuli in our neuronal architecture. But why? Why should a sunset fill us with wonder and a mountain range fill us with awe? Why and how would blind, unintentional processes produce such responses? What urgency would such seemingly gratuitous responses have in the struggle for survival that the whole panoply of mutations and selective pressures would be brought to bear to cultivate them?

A simpler explanation for such phenomena, perhaps, is that our encounters with beauty, like our encounters with good, are intimations of God. Beauty is one means by which God reveals Himself to us in the world. Our encounters with beauty are glimpses He gives us of Himself, and the delight we feel in them is a prelude to heaven.

Another aspect of the world that is better explained in terms of a theistic rather than an atheistic or naturalistic worldview is our sense that reason is trustworthy. If matter, energy, and physical forces like gravity are all there is then everything is ultimately reducible to material, non-rational particles. If so, our beliefs are just brain states that can be completely explained in terms of non-rational chemical reactions, but any belief that is fully explicable in terms of non-rational causes cannot itself be rational. Therefore, if materialism is true, none of our beliefs are rational, (5) reason itself is a non-rational illusion, and both truth and the reliability of scientific investigation are chimerical. Thus the atheistic materialist has no rational basis for believing that materialism, or anything else, is true.

As Stephen Pinker of MIT has said, "Our brains were shaped [by evolution] for fitness, not for truth." (6) Only if our reason is an endowment from an omniscient, good Creator do we have actual warrant for placing confidence in it. We may, if we don't believe that there is a Creator, decide to trust reason simply as an act of faith, but it's very difficult to justify the decision to do so since any justification must itself rely upon rational argument. And, of course, employing reason to argue on behalf of its own trustworthiness begs the question.

The next characteristic of human beings that makes more sense given the existence of God than given atheism is our sense that we are free to make genuine choices and that the future is open. In the absence of God our sense that we are free to choose and are responsible for those choices is problematic. In a Godless world we are just a collection of physical particles, and ultimately physical particles have no freedom, they simply move according to physical laws. There is no free will; there is only an inexorable determinism. At any given moment there is only one possible future, and our belief that we can freely create a future is pure sophistry and illusion.

Thus an atheist who faults me for writing this paper is acting inconsistently with his own assumptions. If there is no God I am driven to write by causes beyond my control and for which I am not responsible. Indeed, if there is no God, it's hard to see how anyone could be ultimately responsible for anything they do.


The remainder of the argument is based on certain facts about the human condition and might be called an existential case for the existence of God:

It is part of the human psyche to desire answers to life's most profound questions. As human beings we want answers to the deepest, most perplexing questions raised by our existence, but in the world as the atheist sees it there are no answers, there's no assurance about anything that matters, except that we'll eventually die. We shout the "why" questions of human existence at the vast void of the cosmos - Why am I here? Why do we suffer? Why do we want from life what we cannot have? - but in a Godless universe there's no reply, only silence. The cosmos is indifferent to our desire for answers. We are alone, forlorn, as Sartre put it, and our quest for answers is absurd.

If God exists, however, then it's possible that each of those questions has an answer, and if there are answers then the fact that we have those questions and desire their answers makes sense. We may not know what the answer is, but we have a reasonable hope that our questions aren't futile or meaningless and that there is a reason why they gnaw at us. The atheist must counsel acquiescence to the disconnect between our deep need and the impossibility of fulfilling that need. The theist is in a position to counsel hope.

Another aspect of the human condition is that we are burdened with a deep sense that we are obligated to act morally. As human beings we strive to ground morality in something more solid than our own subjective preferences, but if there is no God there is nothing else upon which to base them. In a purely material world morality is nothing more than whatever feels right to the individual.

This is not to say that the non-theist cannot live a life similar in quality to that of a theist. She can of course, but what she cannot say is that what she does is morally good or right. There simply is no moral good unless there is an objective, transcendent standard of goodness, and the existence of such a standard is precisely what non-theists deny. Consider these two quotes from some well-known atheists:

"In an important sense, ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate. The way our biology forces its codes is by making us think that there is an objective higher code, to which we are all subject." (7)

"Life has no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind indifference." (8)

For the atheist moral judgments can be little more than expressions of personal preference, and no one's preference is any more authoritative than anyone else's. This leads ineluctably toward a might makes right egoism, either on the level of the individual or the level of the state. Whatever those who control power do is not morally right or wrong, even if they commit torture or genocide, it just is.

Moreover, unless there is a transcendent moral authority there is nothing whatsoever which obligates us to act in one way rather than another. What could possibly obligate me, in a moral sense, to act in the interest of the collective rather than in what I perceive to be my own interest? Given naturalism, there is nothing which obligates us to care for the poor, nothing which makes kindness better than cruelty, nothing, indeed, to tell us why the holocaust was wrong.

Given atheism, morality is either subjective, and thus arbitrary and personal, or it doesn't exist at all, and our sense, our conviction that it does is simply self-deception. If God exists, however, then, and only then, does our intuition that objective moral value and obligation also exist make sense.

Related to the preceding point, we experience feelings of guilt, and have a sense that guilt is not just an illusion, but without an objective standard of morality before which we stand convicted there can be no real guilt. Human beings are no more guilty in a moral sense than is a cat which has caught and tortured a bird. The feeling of guilt is merely an evolutionary epiphenomenon which arose to suit us for life in the stone age and which, like our tonsils, we no longer need. Indeed, it's a vestige of our past that we should suppress since it bears no relation to any actual state of affairs.

On the other hand, if there is an omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good Creator of the universe, then our sense that we are actually guilty has an explanation. We feel guilt because we have transgressed the moral law instituted by the Creator before whom we stand and to whom we must give an account.

It is this Creator who imposes upon us moral obligation. Take away God and there's no moral law, there's no moral obligation, there's no transgression, and there's no moral guilt. As Dostoyevsky put it, if God is dead then everything is permitted.

An additional fact about our existence is that we profess a belief in human dignity but modern atheism tells us that we are little more than machines made of flesh - sacks of blood, bone and excrement. There is no soul; there is nothing about us that makes us much different than any other mammal. We are more intelligent, of course, but that only makes the difference between us and a cow about the same as the difference between a cow and a trout. In the absence of God there's no reason why someone who has the power should not use it to manipulate and exploit the rest of us like the farmer exploits his cattle for his own purposes, slaughtering them when he might profit from so doing. The universe reminds us we're nothing but "dust in the wind" and there's no dignity in that.

If, however, we are made by God and personally and specifically loved by Him then we have a basis for believing that we are more than a machine. We have a ground for human dignity that is simply unavailable on the assumption of atheism.

Related to the previous point is the further truth that we have a belief in human worth, but if all we are is an ephemeral pattern of atoms, a flesh and bone mechanism, then in what does our worth as human beings consist? We have value only insofar as others, particularly those who wield power, arbitrarily choose to value us. If atheism is true there is no inherent value in being human. Only if theism is true and we are valued by the Creator of the universe can human beings have any objective worth at all. There is no other non-arbitrary ground for it.

Similarly, we have a belief that human beings have certain fundamental rights. Unfortunately, if there is no God there's nothing at all upon which to base those rights save our own prejudices and predilections. As Thomas Jefferson acknowledged in the Declaration of Independence, we have the right to life and liberty only because we are children of the Creator of the universe who has invested those rights in us and in whose eyes we are precious. If there is no Creator then there are no human rights, just arbitrary rules, mere words on paper, which some people agree to follow but which could easily be revoked.

When atheists talk about human rights someone might ask them where those rights come from. Who confers them? Who guarantees them? If it is not God then it must be the state, but if so, our rights are not inalienable. If the state decides what rights we shall have then the state can determine that we have no rights at all. The fact is that if atheism is true human rights are no more substantial or real than the grin of the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland.

Another human longing is the longing for justice, a longing for which there's no fulfillment if death is the end of our existence. We yearn to see good rewarded and evil punished. Our hearts break when evil appears to triumph over good, but it's the common human experience that many good people live lives filled with terrible fear, pain and grief and then they die. Meanwhile, many who were the cause of that suffering come to the end of their lives peacefully and content after many years of pleasure. In a world without God everybody comes to the same end, everyone vanishes, and there's no reward or punishment, just nothingness. In the world of the atheist, it ultimately doesn't matter whether you're Mother Teresa or Adolf Hitler, and there's no hope that justice will ever be done.

Another aspect of the human condition, of course, is the craving of a meaning to our existence. We can't bear living a life we know to be pointless and insignificant, but death nullifies everything and renders it all nugatory. In the absence of God there's no fixed purpose or value to anything we do. Some day the earth will burn up in a solar explosion, and there'll be not a trace that humans once existed. What will all of our striving matter then? All our efforts are like the furious running of a gerbil in his wheel. Our lives are just a footprint in the sand at the edge of a space-time surf. When all is washed away and the cosmos is left as though we were never here, the greatest acts of heroism, charity, and scientific discovery will mean absolutely nothing.

If the atheist is correct, if our existence is simply a temporary fluke of nature, a cosmic accident, then we have no reason to think that anything we do matters at all. If, on the other hand, we have been created by God we may assume that He had some purpose for making us. We may not know what that purpose is, but we have a basis for hoping that there is one. Indeed, if there is a God then we have reason to hope that what we do is not ephemeral, it's eternal, and that each life has an everlasting meaning. Another point: In a Godless world the concept of soul becomes problematic and with it the notion of a self other than the physical body. Since our body is constantly changing, however, we are continuously creating a new self, moment by moment, year by year. There is nothing which perdures through time which makes me the same person I think I was ten years ago. There is no permanent "I," only a kaleidoscopic, fragmented bundle of patterns, impressions, memories, none of which has any real significance in determining who I really am.

As T.S. Eliot put it in The Cocktail Party, "What we know of other people is only our memory of the moments during which we knew them. And they have changed since every meeting we are meeting a stranger." Our sense that we are a self strongly suggests, however, that there's more to us than just our physical being. Yet, unless there is a God physical flux is all there is.

Finally, human beings want desperately to live and yet we know we're going to die. In a Godless universe, the fate of each of us is annihilation. There's no basis for hope that loved ones we've lost still somehow exist or that we'll ever "see" them again. There's no consolation for the bereaved, no salve for grief. Many face this bravely, of course, but, if they're reflective, they must acknowledge that their bravery serves to mask an inner despair. If death is the end then life truly is "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." If death is the end then human existence is completely absurd. But, of course, death is the end if the materialist is right. Only if God exists is there a realistic basis for hope of something beyond this life. Only if God exists can we have a reasonable hope that our longing for life will be fulfilled.


So, we are confronted with a choice: Either we believe that there is no God and that consequently our existential yearnings are inexplicable and unfulfillable, a view which leads logically to nihilism, or we believe that there is a God and that we possess those yearnings because they lead us to the source of their satisfaction. They point us toward God. In other words, the existence of God is the best explanation for the data of human existence. The atheist has no good explanation for these yearnings and must take a leap of faith to avoid the nihilism and despair toward which her worldview pushes her. She has to live as if God exists while denying that He does. Many atheists actually repudiate their own naturalism simply by the way they choose to live their lives.

I've sought in the above to defend the claim that the simplest explanation for the nature of the world and the deepest longings and feelings of the human spirit is that they are what they are because they conform to some existential reality. Those profound convictions are most simply accounted for by positing the possibility of satisfaction, but they can only be satisfied if there is a being that corresponds to the traditional notion of God. If theism is correct we can find intellectual and emotional contentment in the hope that the tragic condition of the world and of our lives is only temporary, that death is not the end and that a beautiful future lies ahead.

If God exists then we can assume that He made us for a reason, that there is a purpose to our existence and that we have dignity and inalienable rights as human beings because we are made in the image of God and loved by Him. If God exists then there is a transcendent moral authority which obligates us to respect others, which provides us in this life with an objective standard upon which to base moral judgment and which will ultimately mete out justice. We feel guilt because we're actually guilty. We feel free because we're actually free. We have an identity that endures because that identity exists in the mind of God. If God exists there is a basis for hope and some sense can be made of an otherwise senseless and existentially chaotic world.

The atheist, if he's consistent with his belief that there is no God, finds himself completely at odds in almost every important way with the structure of his own being. He finds himself inexplicably out of synch with his world. He is alone, forlorn, abandoned in an empty, unfeeling, indifferent universe that offers no solace nor prospect that there might be meaning, morality, justice, dignity, and solutions to the riddles of existence. The atheist lives without expectation or hope that any of the most profound yearnings of our hearts and minds can ever be fulfilled. How, then, do we come to have them? Why would natural selection shape us in such a way as to be so metaphysically and psychologically out of phase with the world in which we are situated?

It's possible, of course, that the atheistic answer is correct, that this is just the way things are, and we should simply make the best of a very bad situation. Yet surely the skeptic should hope that he's mistaken. Surely he would want there to be a God to infuse the cosmos with all the richness it is starved of by His absence.

Nevertheless, I've never known or read one who held such a hope. It's incomprehensible that some, like philosopher Thomas Nagel, for instance, actually cling to the fervent desire that there be no God. This is tantamount to wishing, bizarrely enough, that life really is a meaningless, senseless, cruel and absurd joke. Nagel says in his book The Last Word:

"I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that." (9)

Nagel's ability to see his motivations clearly is uncommon and commendable, but his honesty and insight are little compensation for the profound sadness one feels at what he finds in his own heart. How anyone can actually wish the universe to be the sort of place where meaning, morality, justice, human worth and all the rest are vain illusions, is very difficult, for me, at least, to understand.


(1) Del Ratzsch, Nature, Design and Science: The Status of Design in Natural Science State University of New York Press (2001) p.18.

(2) John Gribben and Martin Rees, Cosmic Coincidences: Dark Matter, Mankind, and Anthropic Cosmology, Bantam (1989) p.18.

(3) Richard Swinburne, "Design Defended," Think, Spring (2004) p.17. Cited in: Antony Flew, There is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, HarperOne (2007) p.119.

(4) John Horgan, The Undiscovered Mind: How the Human Brain Defies Replication, Medication, and Explanation, Free Press (1999) pp.15-31.

(5) Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, Oxford University Press (2000) pp.227-240.

(6) Stephen Pinker, How the Mind Works, Norton (1997) pp.305-306.

(7) Michael Ruse and Edward O. Wilson, "Evolution and Ethics," in New Scientist, October 17, 1985, p.51-52.

(8) Richard Dawkins, Out of Eden, Basic Books (1992) p.133.

(9) Thomas Nagel, The Last Word, Oxford University Press (1997) p.130.

The God Delusion

The God Delusion Ch. 1

I confess that despite all the buzz about it I had not until recently read Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion (TGD). I had read so much about it that I thought it would be redundant to actually spend time on the book itself. Recently, however, a friend of mine was challenged by an atheist acquaintance to read TGD, and I thought it might be useful to read it along with him and discuss it as we go.

I also thought that it might be worthwhile posting my thoughts on the book chapter by chapter to help others who may not be inclined to read it themselves to at least get one person's perspective on what Dawkins says that's good and what he says that's not.

With that in mind, then, here are some thoughts on Chapter 1:

Dawkins says in the preface that "If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down." I don't know how successful he's been in achieving that goal - although I've heard more than one Christian say that the book really shook them - but the effectiveness of Dawkins' polemic, in my opinion, is due more to the emotional impact of his jackhammer indictments of religion than to the rigor of his arguments against the existence of God.

In chapter one he sets out to dispel the myth that Einstein and others were religious believers. In this he is, of course, correct. Einstein used the word "God" as a short hand for the mysteriousness of the cosmos. He did not believe in a transcendent, personal, creator. Dawkins' project in TGD is to destroy the basis for belief in the latter. He's indifferent about conceptions of God which immanentize him.

He then goes on to argue that religion and religious belief do not deserve any more respect than any other beliefs one holds. Religious beliefs should not be deemed out of bounds and beyond challenge and, he argues, we should not hesitate to press people on their religious beliefs even if this causes them to be offended. I happen to agree with him on this point as well. A man's belief in God should not be treated with the deference that we treat his belief that his wife is beautiful. In fact, I think the reason we often do treat a person's religious beliefs respectfully and deferentially is out of a certain politeness. We have learned through long experience that most people cannot give a coherent defense of their beliefs and that to press them to defend them would only embarrass them, like pressing a man to defend his conviction of his wife's beauty. Not wishing to embarrass people, and not seeing the matter as poarticularly significant, we generally don't pursue such questions.

This is fine if we are inclined not to create hard feelings, but I see nothing wrong with someone like Dawkins laying down the gauntlet to religious believers, especially if those believers are themselves evangelical and concerned to encourage others to accept their faith. Christians should always be prepared to give an account for the hope that is within us.

I disagree with him, though, when soon after he defends his right to poke his nose into what Christians most deeply believe he tells us that "the right to be Christian seems ... to mean the right to poke your nose into other people's private lives." He has in mind here Christian opposition to the homosexual political agenda, and Dawkins thinks it's simply intolerable that Christians would publicly declare homosexuality to be wrong. This is pretty funny coming from the man who thinks it's just fine to tell Christians that they're wrong.

In any event, the claim that any behavior is wrong is an odd one coming from a man who is promoting in his book the idea that there is no God and thus no basis for anything being right or wrong. But this discussion will have to wait until chapter 6 and 7.

The God Delusion Ch. 2

Richard Dawkins doesn't like God. He makes that quite clear in the opening lines of chapter 2 of The God Delusion (TGD) where he avers that "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser;a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniac, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully." Having exhausted his thesaurus' pejoratives, Dawkins mercifully jogs to a panting halt and gives us a preview of his main argument against the existence of the monster he has just described.

He recognizes, of course, that he has just created a straw man and that it's possible some believers in God do not see him quite the way Dawkins portrays him. Thus, he defines the God whose existence he will disprove by laying out for us what he calls The God Hypothesis: "There exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us." One might think that it'd be very difficult to refute the existence of such a being and that the best Dawkins could do would be to argue that there's no reason to believe such a being exists. After all, what evidence might be adduced against it? But Dawkins is undaunted. He believes he has a knockdown argument and he's eventually going to give it to us, but first he wants to take a few more swipes at religion.

Confusing the question of the existence of God with popular religious expressions of belief in that existence, a confusion he indulges throughout the book, Dawkins launches into a rambling catalogue of complaints about tax exemptions, trinitarian theologizing, and the religious views of the American Founding Fathers. He claims to be attacking God ("I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural..."), but busies himself in chapter 2 with peripheral concerns having little to do with the question of the truth of The God Hypothesis.

At pains to show that the Founders were not Christians, he adduces a document drafted by Washington and signed by Adams as giving the lie to the belief that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation. Washington writes in a treaty with Tripoli that "[T]he government of the United States of America is not in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." This is true enough as far as it goes, but what it elides is that the U.S. was founded on the principles of equality, liberty, and human rights which arguably could not have been derived from any other worldview. In other words, the Founders imported into our nascent government ideas which were rooted uniquely in their Christian heritage while at the same time keeping the government neutral with respect to matters of religion. This distinction, however, escapes Dawkins' notice.

Dawkins repeatedly quotes Thomas Jefferson's hostile comments about the Christianity of his experience and deduces from these quotes that ... Jefferson didn't much like Christianity. This rather banal conclusion is hardly a surprise nor is it much to the purpose of demonstrating that God doesn't exist.

Dawkins is contemptuous not only of Christian believers but also of those timorous agnostics who hide behind their ignorance and refuse to take a stand against belief in God. In the course of chastising them for their pusillanimous fence-sitting he makes an astonishing claim, one that he insists upon several times throughout the chapter: He asserts that the question of God's existence "is a scientific question."

In one single sentence the dean of contemporary Darwinism has undone all the arguments that have ever been adduced against teaching intelligent design in public schools. Those arguments have been founded on two premises: Intelligent design is all about God, and, second, God doesn't belong in the science classroom. Now the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University has assured us that indeed God does belong in the science classroom. I'm sure the ACLU and Judge John Jones of the Dover Intelligent Design trial were not amused to read this.

Lest you think you maybe didn't read him right here he is again on pages 72 and 73: "I shall suggest that the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any belongs in the as the controversies over the Permian and Cretaceous extinctions. God's existence or non-existence is a scientific fact about the universe..." And again on p. 82: The presence or absence of a super-intelligence is unequivocally a scientific question....So also is the truth or falsehood of every one of the miracle stories...."

As more than one commenter on the book has observed, one can almost hear Dawkins' Darwinian comrades yelling at him: "Richard, please shut up! You're giving away the game!"

The rest of chapter 2 is given to scoffing at such things as prayer experiments and those evolutionists who deny that evolution leads to atheism: "Any creationist lawyer who got me on the stand could instantly win over the jury simply by asking me: 'Has your knowledge of evolution influenced you in the direction of becoming an atheist?' I would have to answer yes and, at one stroke, I would have lost the jury."

Yes, and he's also blown the case for keeping intelligent design out of our science classes. If ID is forbidden because it points to God, why should not evolution be forbidden because it points away from God? If we are going to allow our children to be taught the one, why not the other?

The God Delusion, Ch. 3

We continue our walk through Richard Dawkins' best-selling attack on belief in God (though he calls it, rather pretentiously (p.57), an attack on God himself) with a look at chapter 3.

This chapter is ostensibly given to an adumbration of some of the arguments in favor of God's existence, although Dawkins can't resist the temptation to scoff at their alleged inadequacies as he summarizes them. Some of these inadequacies are genuine and some are due to Dawkins' tendentious explications of the arguments. As an example of the latter, he offers the long-discredited observation that omniscience and omnipotence are logically incompatible since God must know today what he will do tomorrow, but if he knows today what he will do tomorrow then he can't change his mind tomorrow, which means there's something he can't do. Therefore, he's not omnipotent.

This is like the old paradox that asks whether God can create a stone so heavy that he can't lift it. Whether the theist answers yes or no he is tacitly agreeing that there's something beyond God's power to accomplish. One of several problems with this paradox is that it's incoherent. It suggests that there's something that can't be done by a being which can do anything. In other words, it seeks to show that God's inability to bring about a logically impossible state of affairs means he must not exist. This, as every freshman philosophy student learns, misconstrues God's omnipotence.

To say that God is omnipotent is to say that he can do anything it is logically possible to do. Philosophers at least since Aquinas have recognized that God cannot do anything which establishes a contradiction of some sort. He cannot, for instance, cause it to happen that he never existed, nor can he create a world in which it would be true to say that he did not create it. If it's logically possible to know the future then God can know what will happen tomorrow. All that follows from Dawkins' argument is that God's freedom to change his mind is constrained by his foreknowledge, just as his actions are constrained by his goodness. He has the freedom to change his mind, but if he knows that he won't, then he won't.

Dawkins spends a little time in this chapter deriding the ontological argument, calling it infantile just before acknowledging that philosophers have been of two minds about it's validity. The world has had to wait for Richard Dawkins to arrive to settle the matter and he does so by seemingly confusing Anselm's version of the argument with Descartes'. Conflating the two, he defeats Descartes, whose argument almost no one accepts anyway, and claims to have thus defeated Anselm. Moreover, he never mentions the more formidable versions of the ontological argument presented by contemporary philosophers like Alvin Plantinga and Norman Malcolm, but perhaps he's not aware of them.

Another of the arguments he selects for ridicule in this chapter is what he calls the Argument From Admired Religious Scientists. This is the claim that since certain scientists believe in God and since scientists are intelligent that, therefore, belief in God is an intelligent option. This is indeed a bad argument, and I know of no educated person who would ever use it as a justification for belief, but equally as bad is Dawkins' response to it.

With a certain glee he points out that the more educated people are, the more intelligent they are, the less likely they are to be religious, but of course this argument by correlation is fraught with dangers. If we're going to argue that intelligent people are usually atheists we can also argue that the longer a person's criminal record the more likely he is to be an atheist, or that, at least in the non-Islamic world, the more blood-thirsty a tyrant the more likely he is to be an atheist. So, I don't know what we should make of the fact, if it even is a fact, that intelligence correlates to unbelief except to say that highly intelligent tyrants and criminals are even more likely to be atheists than are more modestly endowed thugs.

In any event, the argument from the correlation to intelligence is not very impressive. Intelligence is not wisdom. Intelligence is an ability, and ability in one sphere of life does not entail ability in other spheres. A man brilliant in his field is often an incompetent outside of it. Literary geniuses are often mathematical clods, and vice-versa. Indeed, the most striking examples of this are idiot-savants (Think of the movie Rain Man or even A Beautiful Mind). College professors are a close second. That a man is a brilliant biologist tells us nothing about his ability to discern the fingerprint of God in the world and in his life.

More later.

The God Delusion, Ch. 4 (part I)

Chapter 4 is the crux of The God Delusion. It's here that Richard Dawkins sets out to demonstrate, as the chapter heading states, why there almost certainly is no God.

His argument amounts to this:

Creationists (for Dawkins this is anyone who believes in God) hold that the world and life are astronomically improbable and therefore could not have come about on their own. Thus, the creationists believe, there must be an intelligence which lies behind it all, i.e. God. However, anything intelligent enough to create the world must itself be highly complex and therefore at least as improbable as the world it creates. Thus, if the improbability of the universe is so great as to render it inexplicable apart from a designer, then that designer, being even more improbable, must itself require an explanation. This leads to an infinite regress of "designers" which is an absurdity. Therefore, the simplest, most reasonable alternative to believing an absurdity is to believe that the universe is all there is.

Dawkins thinks this is a knock down argument against the rationality of believing in God's existence, but it fails for at least reasons:

1. The assumption that the source of complexity must itself be complex is false.

2. The argument from improbability is based on a category mistake.

3. The argument is based on the assumption that the theist is forced to accept an infinite regress.

4. The argument commits the fallacy of claiming that if there's no good reason to think an event didn't happen that it therefore almost certainly did happen.

We'll consider 1 and 2 today and 3 and 4 tomorrow.

Dawkins argues that if life is designed the designer must be at least as complex as what he designed and therefore at least as improbable and therefore at least as much in need of an explanation for his complexity.

Yet Dawkins believes that the ultimate source of the universe and all the complexity it contains was a simple, homogenous point (singularity) which, in the Big Bang, ultimately produced the present world. He also believes that the first cell to appear in the long chain of living things was far less complex than the myriad life forms into which it has evolved. He also believes, I assume, that the zygote which gives rise to an adult human is much less complex than the adult it gradually forms itself into. So, it's not clear to me, in light of these examples, why he would stake his argument on the claim that complexity can only be generated by even greater complexity. The assertion seems to be just false.

If God is simple, as many theologians and philosophers believe, then Dawkins' claim that he's even less probable than the universe comes to nothing. But this is a relatively minor point. The second - and I think the greatest - problem with Dawkins' argument is that it uses the idea of improbability in an ambiguous and logically illicit manner.

When we say that the complexity of the living world is improbable we mean that it is unlikely that it could have arisen solely by unguided processes. We mean that it is astonishing that it would have just happened by coincidence, without any purposeful input. It is highly improbable, for instance, that a stick would appear to be whittled to a point if only mechanical forces ever acted upon it, but it's not at all improbable that the stick takes on this appearance given the existence of a boy with a knife.

In other words, complex universes containing complex living things are improbable only on the assumption that they arose by sheer chance. They're not at all improbable if there's an intelligent agent involved in their origin.

Moreover, although it's indeed highly improbable that complex things like cells and universes could be produced by purely mechanical processes, God, unlike the boy with the knife, is not something which is produced. God has for centuries been thought of by philosophers as a necessary being, one which does not depend on anything else for his existence. Thus, it is a category mistake to talk about the improbability of God coming to be in the same sense that the universe comes to be. It is the origin of the universe and the origin of life that beg for a causal explanation. God is not the sort of thing that has an origin and therefore not the sort of thing which depends upon some cause outside himself and not the sort of thing to which the term "improbable" applies.

The universe can be defined as the sum of all contingent entities. Contingent entities require a necessary entity as their ultimate cause. This ultimate cause of the constituents of the universe cannot itself be contingent (dependent) upon anything else or it would, by definition, be part of the universe. Thus the ultimate cause must be something which does not "come to be" and which exists entirely independently of any contingent entity. It must have necessary existence.

Dawkins doesn't seem to understand the distinction between necessary and contingent being. If he did he wouldn't confuse God with contingent entities. When the difference is understood, the argument from improbability, in which he invests so much, collapses.

More on Dawkins' argument in chapter 4 tomorrow.

The God Delusion, Ch. 4 (part II)

On Tuesday we began a critique of the crucial chapter 4 in Richard Dawkins' atheistic best-seller The God Delusion. We pointed out that Dawkins' whole book rests on the argument he offers in this chapter in support of the claim that God almost certainly does not exist. Dawkins takes the theist's argument that the complexity of the world and of living things makes their existence highly improbable without a designer to account for them and seeks to turn it against the theist. His argument distills to the following steps:

1. The universe and life are very complex and therefore their existence is improbable.

2. Whatever creates the complex world must itself be even more complex than what he creates and his existence is therefore even more improbable than that of the world.

3. Thus, whatever creates the world must itself be explained in terms of another creator, and so on, in an infinite regress of creators.

4. It's absurd to posit an infinite regress. It's more parsimonious to conclude that the world is just a brute fact and that there is no creator.

As we stressed in yesterday's post all the assertions in steps 2 and 3 are false and their falsity is fatal to Dawkins' argument. Dawkins, despite his confident assertions to the contrary, hasn't come anywhere close to proving that God "almost certainly doesn't exist." But there's more that's wrong with chapter 4 than this.

Dawkins argues that God is an unnecessary hypothesis, that the universe and living things could have easily come about without any divine intervention. In support of this claim he cites the marvels of evolutionary theory. Does life's complexity lead you to believe that there must be something supernatural behind it? Then you are too naive, or unobservant, or unimaginative to see that the appearance of design is just an illusion. Dawkins quite astonishingly compares the illusion of design to a magic trick done by Penn and Teller. Just as there is a perfectly natural explanation for the magic trick there's a perfectly natural explanation for the illusion of design in living things. I say that this is an astonishing comparison because it doesn't seem to occur to him that he's completely defeating his own case. The magic trick is performed by intelligent agents, it would not happen without intelligent purpose and skill. If the "design" of living things really is analogous to a magician's trick then that design should be recognized as the result of intelligent agency, just as the trick is.

Dawkins shoots himself in the foot again when he says that the complexity of living things can be built up by natural processes much like a stone arch is built by craftsmen. The arch cannot function or stand by itself until the keystone is finally added, so in order to support it while it's under construction a scaffolding is erected to hold the stones in place until the arch is completed. The scaffolding is then removed and the arch has the appearance of having been erected without it. This, Dawkins believes, is analogous to how irreducibly complex structures in cells, structures like the famed bacterial flagellum, are put together by evolution. Molecular scaffolding holds the components in place until the whole structure is complete and functioning and then the scaffolding disappears. The problem with his analogy, though, is that the arch's scaffolding is intentionally erected by intelligent artisans with a specific end in mind. A scaffolding erected for the purpose of holding up stone arches is much more closely analogous to intentional design than it is to blind, purposeless evolution.

Almost every line in chapter 4 drips with an unseemly disdain for scientists like Michael Behe, an evolutionist who nevertheless thinks that intelligence has somehow played a role in the creation of life. Dawkins' contempt for this view leads him to say the most ridiculous things. For example he caricatures scientists like Behe in these words:

Here is the message that an imaginary 'intelligent design theorist' might broadcast to scientists (note that for Dawkins ID theorists are in a separate class than scientists): 'If you don't understand how something works, never mind: just give up and say God did it.'

Notwithstanding the fact that many of the greatest minds in the history of science have held to ID in some form, or the fact that many scientists today are theists and believe that God is somehow behind the phenomena they study, or the fact that there is no example of such reasoning as Dawkins invents ever having been offered by anyone in the ID camp, blithely indifferent to all of this Dawkins claims that belief in God is a "science stopper." He's dismissive of these men and women who labor everyday in their labs to unlock the mysteries of nature despite the fact that he himself hasn't done any real scientific research since his doctoral work. He simply writes books about the work of others. It ill-becomes him, then, to speak so disparagingly of the science being done by others just because he despises their metaphysical commitments.

In any event, not having yet satisfied his apparently uncontrollable impulse to intellectual self-immolation Professor Dawkins concludes the chapter by insisting that if it's possible for something to happen then it's almost certain that it did happen. We'll address this peculiar argument next time.

The God Delusion, Ch. 4 (part III)

Although supremely confident that he has just demolished any rationale for believing in God with his argument based on God's alleged improbability, professor Dawkins loads another round into the chamber just in case theism is still twitching.

Recall that his argument is a reply to the theist's claim that the complexity of the universe, its finely-tuned forces and parameters, are so extraordinarily improbable as to make an intelligent cause the only plausible explanation for them. Dawkins has argued, incorrectly, that this cause would itself have to be even more extraordinarily improbable and therefore not a plausible explanation at all. The theist cannot explain God and therefore has no reason to believe he exists, or so Dawkins implies.

Now he imagines himself to be applying the coup de grace to theism by presenting what he fancies to be a more plausible explanation for the universe's existence. Since we should always believe that which is more plausible instead of that which is less plausible we should accept his explanation he's about to offer rather than the God Hypothesis. His argument combines what has come to be called the Anthropic Principle (actually Dawkins employs what is called the Weak Anthropic Principle, WAP) with the Many-Worlds Hypothesis MWH).

Suppose you purchase a lottery ticket and learn that you are the only person who did so. Nevertheless, on the day of the drawing your five-digit ticket number, as highly improbable as it may be, comes up. You've won. The odds against it are extraordinary, but there's no point in objecting that it's almost impossible that your number could have been randomly drawn since you obviously won and the only way that could have happened is if your number was the one selected.

The universe is something like that. It's admittedly incredible that the forces and structural parameters are what they are, but we shouldn't be too surprised, the argument goes, since if they weren't exactly as they are the universe, if it existed all, would not have been able to produce life, and we wouldn't be here to notice the fact. Thus, the universe has to be the way it is for us to be here at all. That's the WAP and, Dawkins believes, it's all the explanation that's needed or which can be given for how the world happens to be so exquisitely calibrated for life.

This, of course, sounds like sophistry to most people who don't think like atheists. Consider a prisoner placed in a room with a dozen card tables each of which has on it ten complete packs of thoroughly shuffled playing cards. The man is told that from each of the decks on each of the tables he is to draw four cards at random. The first time he draws something other than an ace a poison gas will be released and he will die instantly. The man begins his task, despairing of making it past even the first card. Yet to his astonishment he completes the first table having drawn all aces, then the second, and finally the last. Unable to comprehend his good fortune, he wonders aloud how it could possibly have happened that he drew all aces, purely by chance, and is still alive. He's convinced, quite reasonably, that someone must have tinkered with the cards. A voice comes over the intercom, the voice of Richard Dawkins, say, and intones that he shouldn't conclude that there was any tinkering. Would it not be even more astonishing that an invisible man of some sort had somehow influenced the card selection? No, it was all just coincidence, and the prisoner shouldn't marvel that he drew 120 aces because if it had been otherwise he wouldn't be alive to notice. That's essentially Dawkins' explanation for the way the world is.

Needless to say, many people find this less than persuasive, so Dawkins imports another idea to buttress it. This is the theory that our universe or at least our region of the universe is just one of a near infinite number of such regions (called domains) all having different physical properties. Dawkins seizes upon this idea, the Many Worlds Hypothesis, and argues that given so many possibilities it's highly likely that there's at least one domain which has the particular set of properties necessary to sustain advanced life forms, and it just happens that we're in it. In other words, if enough lottery tickets are sold one of them just has to have the winning number.

The MWH serves as a deus ex machina for Dawkins and by combining it with the argument from God's improbability Dawkins has atheist hearts palpitating the world over. You, however, may be asking yourself several questions:

1. Is a near infinite number of worlds likely to exist? Dawkins replies that no, it's very unlikely, but it's even less likely that God exists so it makes more sense to believe the MWH than to believe in God.

2. You may also wonder where all those universes came from and how they came to have the properties they do. If you do you're wondering about more than Dawkins does. There is no conceivable mechanism for generating these universes, nor for producing the laws which would govern them. How do physical laws get created anyway?

3. You may also be asking whether this has anything to do with science. After all, Dawkins tells us several times in the book that he bases his beliefs on evidence. What's the evidence for other worlds? There is none. The MWH violates the principle that the preferred explanation be one for which we have evidence or which can be inferred from what we already know. We have reason to believe that information and fine-tuning can be produced by minds. We have no evidence, nor can have, of other universes. We have evidence that minds can create beauty, elegance, harmony, etc. but no evidence that chance can.

Yet Dawkins is prepared to believe, despite the lack of any empirical evidence, there are an infinite number of universes before he'll believe that there's a mind behind it all. It reminds me of something I read about Michael Shermer, another prominent atheist. Shermer once said that even if we were to discover a planet with the words "Yahweh Made Me" inscribed in letters so large as to be visible from a vast distance he'd still believe that it was an amazing accident.

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga observes that Dawkins seems to be arguing that because it is possible that life arose without God, therefore life must have arisen without God. Plantinga writes:

It's worth meditating, if only for a moment, on the striking distance, here, between premise and conclusion. The premise tells us, substantially, that there are no irrefutable objections to its being possible that unguided evolution has produced all of the wonders of the living world; the conclusion is that it is true that unguided evolution has indeed produced all of those wonders. The argument form seems to be something like:

We know of no irrefutable objections to its being possible that p; Therefore, p is true.

Philosophers sometimes propound invalid arguments (I've propounded a few myself); few of those arguments display the truly colossal distance between premise and conclusion sported by this one. I come into the departmental office and announce to the chairman that the dean has just authorized a $50,000 raise for me; naturally he wants to know why I think so. I tell him that we know of no irrefutable objections to its being possible that the dean has done that. My guess is he'd gently suggest that it is high time for me to retire.

Dawkins rests his entire case on the arguments of chapter 4, but those arguments come nowhere near demonstrating what he thinks they do. Indeed, they're an exceedingly flimsy platform upon which to rest a conclusion so weighty as that God does not exist. Perhaps aware of the logical mire into which he has stepped, he subtly changes the subject, diverting our attention from his attack on God to his attack on creationism, organized religion, and anything else religious that crosses his field of vision. Whatever may be the merits of these criticisms, they're irrelevant to the question of the existence of God. Indeed, belief in God is left completely unscathed by The God Delusion.

The God Delusion, Ch. 5

Having shown to his satisfaction, if to no one else's, that there's almost certainly no Deity, Professor Dawkins next assays to consider where the whole business of religion came from anyway. He concludes in chapter 5 that religion is an evolutionary misfiring, or by-product, of something else. By way of explanation he invites us to consider the self-destructive behavior of moths which spiral into a flame. Why do they do this? Well, over the eons they have evolved light sensors that enable them to navigate by the moon and the stars. These luminous objects are very far away and seem to the moths like stationary beacons in the night sky, but when artificial light was introduced into the moths' environment the lights were so close that they appear to shift as the moth moves, requiring any moth that's fixing on them to also deviate from a straight-line path to keep the light at a fixed point. The result was that the confused moth takes a spiral path toward the light, or something like that.

Professor Dawkins doesn't trouble himself to explain why moths need to navigate by celestial objects in the first place since they don't migrate and spend much of their adult lives confined to a localized area. When they do travel it's along chemical trails of pheromones produced by females. So why would they have evolved these light sensors? But this is a digression. His point is that the spiraling behavior of moths is really a by-product of something else and that likewise religious behavior in humans is a by-product of some other behavior which evolved because it conferred a selective advantage.

Dawkins avoids the simpler explanation that religion itself confers a selective advantage and thus humans evolved it. This is an unacceptable explanation, even if it has the merit of being less cumbersome, because if it were the case Dawkins would have to admit that atheism is a maladaptive mutation, and he certainly doesn't want to have to make the case that atheists are genetic mutants.

So what is religion a by-product of? It turns out that all we have are guesses, but one guess is that natural selection produced in children the tendency to believe whatever their parents and other elders tell them, a bit of news that'll surprise most parents. This aids the children in survival. Parents tell kids about God so kids grow up believing in God.

It's not clear whether children lose this gullibility as adults, but if they do why do they retain belief in God when they don't retain other childhood beliefs like belief in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy? Why, too, do so many people come to belief as adults? Why isn't Dawkins himself religious since he received a lot of exposure to it when he was a child? If one's belief about God is a result of psychological misfires in the brain then isn't atheism also a result of such a misfire and thus can't we conclude that atheists don't believe in God because of evidence but because of some psychological quirk? Professor Dawkins doesn't help us with these questions. He's in too much of a hurry to rush on to his next grievance against the religious - their irritating tendency to be dualists - which he also sees as a holdover from childhood.

There are other guesses as to what religion is a by-product of, of course, - love, projection, wishful thinking - but the general idea Dawkins wants to advance is that it's a by-product of something advantageous for survival.

Another reason why religion has survived and diversified has to do with memes. A meme is like a mental gene. It embodies an idea or set of ideas (called a memeplex) that spreads through a culture. For example, the belief in human rights is a meme, as is any belief. Natural selection acts to weed out unsatisafactory memes in the same way it culls unfit genes. Religious beliefs are also memes which have spread, not because they are true, but because they afforded those who held them some survival advantage.

Dawkins is obviously pleased with this explanation for the widespread occurrence of religion even though the theory is completely speculative and even self-defeating. After all, if all our beliefs are merely memes then so is atheism a meme, so is Darwinian evolution a meme, and, indeed, so is belief in memes a meme.

He closes the chapter with a rambling discussion of cargo cults, religions that spring up among primitive people when they encounter for the first time the "magic" of modern technological society. He notes that ignorant people often regard the radios and machines of visiting Europeans as being supernaturally produced because they never see them being made or repaired. None of this, like much else in the remainder of the book, has anything at all to do with whether God exists.

Dawkins is apparently convinced that the existence of God and the manner in which some people express their homage to that God are one and the same thing. He seems to think that if he can discredit religious beliefs then he can discredit belief in God. Perhaps this is the strangest "God delusion" of all.

The God Delusion, Ch. 6

Author Richard Dawkins concerns himself in chapter 6 of The God Delusion (TGD) with an attempt to explain the relationship between God and morality and to argue that God is not necessary for good behavior. Richard Dawkins initiates the discussion with this question:

Isn't goodness incompatible with the theory of the selfish gene (the view that all of our behavior is determined by our genes to increase the chances that our genes will be perpetuated into the next generation)? The question could be asked more relevantly of atheism in general, but Dawkins replies to his query by claiming that evolution gives a much better explanation for morality than does the God Hypothesis.

Before we consider his answer we might pause for a moment to note something he says which I find intriguing. He argues that acts of altruism in animals are demonstrations of one individual's superiority over another:

The dominant bird is saying the equivalent of, "Look how superior I am to you, I can afford to give you food." Or "Look how superior I am, I can afford to make myself vulnerable top hawks by sitting on a high branch, acting as a sentinel to warn the rest of the flock feeding on the ground." ....And when a subordinate [bird] attempts to offer food to a dominant individual, the apparent generosity is violently rebuffed.

This makes a lot of sense to me. I've long thought it an interesting quirk of human nature that many people resent favors done them by others. Rather than see the favor as a kindness people sometimes react to it as though it were a personal insult (Think of the ingratitude many Iraqis feel for American sacrifices on behalf of their freedom, for instance). Perhaps the ingratitude is due to the fact that at some subliminal level the beneficiary of the favor realizes that he is being implicitly told that he is inferior, and no one likes to be told that.

At any rate, Dawkins' point in chapter 6 is that we don't need God to be moral. The urge to be kind, for instance, is a product of our evolutionary history and we'd have that inclination whether God told us to be kind or not. There's much in his reasoning on this matter of which we can be critical.

The problem is not how to explain "moral" behavior. People can certainly do "good" things whether God exists or not. The problem is trying to account for moral obligation. How are we obligated to do something just because evolution has inclined us to do it? Why should we be kind if there's nothing in it for us or if cruelty will benefit us in some way? Why is it wrong to be cruel? What does it mean to say that something is "wrong" anyway? How do we justify the belief that moral good and bad have any non-arbitrary meaning apart from an objective transcendent moral authority?

Evolution has bestowed upon us other tendencies besides an inclination to kindness (which, by the way, not all humans appear to possess) which we do not consider good. How do we decide which of these tendencies are good and which are bad? Evolution has given us a tendency to be aggressive, to be selfish toward non-kin, to be sexually promiscuous, etc. Is yielding to these inclinations wrong? If so, why?

Dawkins comes very close here to committing the genetic fallacy, the error that says that because we are a certain way that therefore we should be that way. He also informs us that he is himself a consequentialist, one who bases rightness on the results of the act, but who do those results have to benefit in order to be right? Other people? Himself? How does he decide which it is to be, and why would it be wrong to just care about the benefits of one's actions for oneself?

Dawkins cites studies which show that there's little difference in the way atheists and believers make moral judgments and concludes from this that "we do not need God in order to be good." This is quite an unusual conclusion to draw from these studies. All they show, if they show anything at all, is that atheists have moral convictions that are completely unsupported by their deepest beliefs. Their atheism gives them no basis for thinking anything is right or wrong but they believe there is right and wrong anyway. What the studies Dawkins cites suggest is that most atheists inconsistent, since every atheist who makes a moral judgment is acting as if his atheism were not true.

Dawkins goes on to allege that the Christian tries to be good only to seek God's favor. He concurs with Michael Shermer that "If you agree that, in the absence of God, you would 'commit robbery, rape, and murder,' you reveal yourself to be an immoral person."

This misunderstands the Christian motivation for the moral life. It's not fear of punishment and hope of reward that motivates Christians to do good deeds, when they do them, but rather love and gratitude to the God who has done so much for us. We do not seek God's love by being good. We are good, to the extent we are, because God loves us.

To say that anyone who rapes or murders is immoral, as Shermer and Dawkins do, begs the question. It assumes that the word "immorality" actually means something significant. For Dawkins an immoral act is merely an act which he doesn't like. If there is no God it can't be any more than this. To say that something is immoral is to say nothing more than that he wishes people wouldn't do it. Notwithstanding his wishes, the person who does do such things is no more "wrong" than a cat is wrong to torment a mouse.

In a classic illustration of the fallacy called Division Dawkins makes the ridiculous claim that rioters in Montreal during a police strike in the 1960s were mostly religious people because most Canadians are religious people. Perhaps we can forgive Dawkins this bit of asininity if it weren't that he comes right back on the next page and makes the same sophomoric argument again, this time by quoting a section from a book by fellow atheist Sam Harris.

Harris seeks to disprove the belief that religion leads to better behavior by observing that most of the crime in the U.S. occurs in our cities and most of the cities with the highest crime rates are in states which tend to vote Republican and are therefore most likely to be populated by Christian conservatives. I am not making this up. This is Harris' argument, and Dawkins signs on to it. What Harris and Dawkins are apparently unaware of is that even in Republican states the cities are overwhelmingly Democratic and secular. Instead of employing such a juvenile argument perhaps Harris should have just visited a prison and taken a poll of the inmates and asked them how many were devout, church-going believers who prayed daily at the time they committed their crimes. I wonder what the results would show.

It's hard to believe that otherwise intelligent people would make such embarrassingly dumb arguments, but when your task is to try to give a defense of morality without God you have to go with the best you can even if that means taking a chance on an argument that would be laughed at by middle schoolers.

The fundamental moral problem for the atheist, a problem which Dawkins never really addresses, is this: What is there which obligates us to behave in one way rather than another? What makes kindness better than cruelty? Why should I not just live for myself? Why should I care about others? What's wrong with selfishness? It's really no surprise that Dawkins doesn't address these questions. Indeed, the surprise would have been if he had, because for the atheist there just is no answer to them.

It's fitting to close with a quote from Dawkins' hero, Charles Darwin. Darwin writes in his Autobiography these words:

"One who does not believe in God or an afterlife can have for his rule of life...only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best."

In the absence of God, all we have to guide us are our feelings and no one's feelings are any more authoritative than anyone else's. Unfortunately, the fact that for the atheist one's own subjective feelings are no more morally superior than anyone else's doesn't prevent Mr. Dawkins from repeatedly making moral judgments of others throughout his book and especially in the next chapter.

The God Delusion, Ch. 7 (part I)

We continue our critical journey through Richard Dawkins' best-selling case for atheism, The God Delusion, with a look today at chapter 7. Here Dawkins sets two tasks for himself. The first is to discredit the Bible, particularly the Old Testament (O.T.), and the second is to offer an alternative ethical narrative, what he calls the "moral zeitgeist," to that of the Bible. None of what he says in this chapter has anything to do with the question of God's existence, but it may nevertheless be of interest to Christians.

It has to be understood that Dawkins' arguments are often logically flimsy, and his facts and interpretations are often suspect. TGD is so poorly argued, in fact, that it would not be worth the time it takes to read it were it not that it has sold so many copies and had such a powerful impact on audiences around the world.

One part of his argument in chapter 7 seems to be that it is inconceivable that any God as great as theists imagine him would care about the paltry sins of tiny human beings on our speck of a planet. "We humans," he writes, "give ourselves such airs, even aggrandizing our pokey little 'sins' to the level of cosmic significance."

But of course our sins are of cosmic significance, and so are we, since the creator of the cosmos chose to atone for those sins by offering himself on the cross. Dawkins, almost child-like, seems to equate significance with relative size. Since we're so tiny compared to the universe, he reasons, it's absurd to think that a creator God would care about us. His reasoning reminds me of a scene in the classic film The Third Man where a criminal named Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles, takes his antagonist to the top of a Ferris wheel. From that vantage the people all look so small and their lives seem so insignificant. From that perspective it was easy for Lime to justify the crimes he committed against them. His victims were little more than ants. Dawkins apparently holds the Harry Lime view of humanity. We're so small that a God, if he existed, couldn't possibly care about us.

The Oxford professor goes on to examine the Old Testament stories and wonders why Christians would think that the people who are featured in them, people like Abraham, are moral exemplars. I know of no one, though, who has ever said that they were. The stories we read in the O.T. are instructive precisely because they teach us about the failings and faults common to humanity and how we are lost without God, not because they hold up the often sordid behavior of the characters as a model for the rest of us to emulate.

His basic point in the chapter, he tells us on p.279, is that because the O.T. characters are so depraved we can conclude that wherever modern moral ideas come from they don't come from the Bible. This, of course, is as silly as it can be. How does it follow from the fact that the Bible tells us about human sinfulness that therefore there are no moral principles to be found within its pages? Here are three principles that jump off almost every page of the Old Testament: Love God, do justice, and show compassion to the weak and poor. Dawkins apparently thinks that because these principles are often not followed that therefore they're not there.

Not only does Dawkins actually make the startling assertion that the Bible gives us no such principles, he also says that he doesn't think there's an atheist in the world who would do the sort of thing that religious people (Taliban Muslims) did in Afghanistan when they destroyed ancient Buddhist shrines and other sites of historical and religious value. Only religious people would be so philistine as to commit such an atrocity, he avers. Perhaps he was suffering a brain-freeze when he wrote this and had forgotten the crimes of the communists, committed in the name of state atheism, against Christian churches and clergy all through the twentieth century.

He wonders, too, who God was trying to impress by dying on the cross. Presumably, Dawkins sneers, he was trying to impress himself. This jejune comment reveals the utter shallowness of Dawkins' theological thought. If the crucifixion was intended to impress anyone it was intended to impress us. It was the greatest demonstration of love in the history of the world. The creator of the universe became one of us, not only to atone for our sin, but to give us a glimpse of how much he cherishes us. It's wonderful enough that a man would die for his friends who love him, but God died as well for those who, like Richard Dawkins, despise him. He wanted, among other things, to impress his beloved with the immensity of his love and what better way to do it than through such an unimaginable act of self-abnegation and sacrifice? Perhaps someone might send Dawkins a copy of Tale of Two Cities to help him understand how love can motivate such deeds.

Professor Dawkins vouchsafes to us the further revelation that Jesus never intended for his teaching to be given to anyone other than Jews (p.292) and that it was Paul who thought up the innovation of taking the gospel to the gentiles. He quotes with approval another writer who asserts that Jesus would be spinning in his grave if he knew that Paul had taken his message of love and forgiveness to the 'pigs' (gentiles). Regrettably he does not try to explain how this idea squares with the last couple of verses in Matthew's gospel where Jesus directs his disciples to take the gospel to the whole world, baptizing them and teaching them all that he has commanded. Nor is this claim easily reconciled with the parable of the Good Samaritan, the point of which is that we are enjoined to show compassion to everyone with whom we come in contact.

There is so much in chapter 7, as in the book as a whole, of which to be critical that it's difficult to limit oneself to spotlighting these few samples of Dawkinsian reasoning. Moreover, his reasoning is often so bad, so sophomoric, that one feels it is almost unsporting to deconstruct it. Even so, we'll plod on and look at some more of chapter 7 next time.

The God Delusion, Ch. 7 (part II)

Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion is a rambling, weakly argued polemic against God and religion in which no canard is considered too lame to be trotted out in service to the cause. In the second half of chapter 7, for instance, Dawkins reconstructs the obligatory sad history of religious oppression, conflict and bloodshed. He strongly implies that but for the baleful influence of religion all would be peace and light in the world.

As so often in his book, though, Professor Dawkins tells us only part of the tale, and a small part at that. Let's talk a little bit about what he leaves out, starting in 1915: First there was the Russian revolution (9 million dead), then the Ukrainian famine (15 million), the Nazi holocaust (6 million), the rape of Nanking (300,000) the war in Korea (2.8 million), the cultural revolution in China (40 million), post-war Vietnam (430,000), the Cambodian killing fields (1.6 million), the Rwandan genocide (750,000) These slaughters accounted for the deaths of about 80 million people, none of them had anything to do with religion, but most of them were perpetrated by devotees of an ideology that was explicitly or implicitly atheistic. In other words, the record of slaughter in the name of atheism and by atheists dwarfs that committed in the name of God. Moreover, if we consider not religion in general but only the Christian church the bloodshed which can be layed to the account of Christianity over the last four centuries is vanishingly small, especially compared to the crimes of state atheism.

Dawkins maintains that religion is a significant force for evil because religion, being a human enterprise, is subject to many of the flaws that humans possess, but he fails to recognize that it is the human element of religion that is the problem, not religion itself.

Because there is a widespread consensus about what's right and what's wrong, and this consensus has nothing to do with religion, he concludes that religion is unnecessary for morality. As an alternative to the Biblical commandments he offers a list of ethical rules that reflect what he calls the "moral zeitgeist." Some of the platitudes he serves up are: Always seek to learn something new; live life with joy and wonder; in all things strive to cause no harm. To each of these, however, the question needs to be put, "why?" What obligates anyone to observe Dawkins' rules? They're nothing more than banal expressions of his own preferences about how he'd like to see people live. Observing them or flouting them is neither right nor wrong.

Dawkins naively believes that the moral zeitgeist is moving us forward and that we're making moral progress. Notwithstanding the absurdity of such a claim in light of the statistics given above for the 20th century (which represent, by the way, only a fraction of that century's horrors), it is remarkable for what it reveals about his utter obliviousness to the fact that he has no grounds for calling an evolving moral consensus either progress or regress. It just is.

He assures us that the "zeitgeist," pushed along as it is by people like ethicist Peter Singer, is moving us toward a post-specieist condition where animals will have rights similar to those of human persons. This, Dawkins' enthuses, would be a "natural extrapolation of earlier reforms like the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of women." What Dawkins chooses not to tell his readers is that Singer is the world's most outspoken proponent of legalizing infanticide, which is a "natural extrapolation" from a Darwinian worldview and an example of the progressive direction in which the zeitgeist is moving.

"The manifest progression of the zeitgeist is more than enough to undermine the claim that we need God in order to be good," Dawkins proclaims. In other words, as long as we can agree to follow certain precepts and platitudes who needs God? This is so naive that it seems almost an indignity to respond to it. One of his ethical rules is "Do not discriminate or oppress on the basis of sex, race or species" (Interestingly, he does not prohibit discrimination based upon religion). But why should we not discriminate on the basis of sex or race? Why is such behavior wrong? Why is it wrong to harm another person? Dawkins doesn't tell us because he can't tell us. The Darwinian ethic is might makes right and under such a principle prohibitions against discrimination are ludicrous. Discrimination, or anything else, can only be wrong if we are somehow obligated to treat others with dignity and respect and we can only be so obligated if there is a God.

A big problem for anyone seeking to show that atheists are good folk is the record of oppressors like Hitler and Stalin so Dawkins devotes several pages to explaining how these men and others like them were not influenced to do what they did by their atheism. Their atheism was one thing, their deeds were another. This is a laughable defense given that he was loath to make the same concession to the historical crimes committed by Christians. But even if we allow him the point it's still irrelevant. The question is not whether these men were consciously acting on their atheistic beliefs when they committed their crimes, but rather whether what these men did was in any way inconsistent with an atheistic worldview. The answer to that is no. If atheism is true nothing Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, or Mao did is wrong.

Dawkins is offended that anyone would think that an atheist, qua atheist, would commit such atrocities as were recorded by Stalin and Hitler. "Why would anyone go to war for the sake of an absence of belief?" He asks. Again this question muddies the water. Dawkins needs rather to answer the deeper question of why atheistic Marxists felt impelled to slay thousands of clergy and to attempt to wipe out Christianity in almost every country in which they seized power in the 20th century. If atheism is merely the absence of a belief why is it so hostile to believers? Why is it not simply indifferent? The reason is because atheism is indeed an absolutist belief system and it sees Christianity as its most vigorous rival.

Richard Dawkins does not believe in miracles but he should. The fact that a book as poorly argued as The God Delusion has become a best-seller and is making him wealthy is perhaps the most amazing miracle of our young century.

The God Delusion, Ch. 8

In chapter 8 of The God Delusion Richard Dawkins continues to pile implausible assertions on top of puerile arguments. He delivers himself of the claim, as an instance, that evolutionists believe in evolution because the evidence supports it and would abandon their theory overnight if new evidence arose to disprove it.

Now that may be true of him personally, though I very much doubt it, but it's certainly not true of evolutionists as a whole. Consider the famous admission of evolutionist Richard Lewontin who doubtless speaks for many in his camp:

"We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door."

That doesn't sound to me like a man particularly open to evidence. When Dawkins insists that absolutist belief systems are a source of evil in the world and that religion is absolutist, he should be reminded of the above passage from Lewontin.

The unmistakable trademark of the faith-based moralizer, Dawkins goes on to assure us, is to care passionately about what other people do (or think) in private. This reprehensible behavior is typical of religious people, especially those who condemn homosexuality and other forms of sexual libertinism.

Whether many Christians really care what others think and do in private I cannot say, but it certainly is typical of many of Dawkins' friends, if not he himself, to care about other people's private thoughts. If a student or faculty member of a high school or college knows all the facts of evolutionary theory but personally disbelieves their truth, many atheistic materialists have publicly admitted that they would, were it in their power, deny them a degree or a tenured faculty position.

We've noted on this blog several examples of Darwinists who care very passionately indeed about what people think in private about evolution. Why is it despicable to concern oneself with what others think in their hearts about sex but not despicable when it is private doubts about Darwinism that must be purged root and branch from peoples' hearts and minds?

Professor Dawkins is at pains in chapter 8 to defend abortion on demand and along the way ridicule religious believers for their opposition to it. He observes that Paul Hill, a Pensacola man who killed an abortionist and his bodyguard in 1994, was driven to his deed by his religious beliefs. By the lights of his religious faith, Dawkins states, Hill was entirely right and moral to shoot the abortionist.

Be that as it may, the irony of Dawkins' complaint here against religion is that by Dawkins' own lights he cannot say, though he does anyway, that Hill was wrong or immoral to shoot the abortionist. Dawkins has to import a theistic understanding and foundation of morality in order to make his case that Hill's act was contemptible because on atheistic grounds there simply is no justification for using the word "wrong" and no reason to think that murder is anything more than an offense against one's own subjective moral preferences.

Dawkins' main justification for killing the unborn, surprisingly enough, is not that they're not human but that, regardless of their humanity, they don't really suffer from being aborted. This is an astonishing argument. If we were to adopt it how could we avoid taking the short step to agreeing that no killing would be immoral as long as the victim didn't suffer? Where would this stop? Infants and the elderly could be put to death so long as it was done painlessly, but there'd be no reason to stop there. Everyone who couldn't defend themselves in a Dawkinsian world would be fair game for the stronger provided the killers did their deed without inflicting pain. Children, the weak and infirm, the poor, all would be vulnerable to Dawkins' enlightened thinking. Dawkins, though he apparently doesn't foresee it, would have us living in a Hobbesian world of war of every man against every man. To follow his logic would be to travel straight back to the holocaust.

Having proffered the stunningly stupid thesis that what essentially makes murder wrong is not that it takes a human life but rather that it inflicts pain, our intrepid philosopher is now prepared to traipse insouciantly on to chapter 9 where he will make the case, or at least attempt to make a case, that teaching children to be religious is a form of child abuse.

The God Delusion, Ch. 9

To fully appreciate the ironies of chapter 9 of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion one has to understand that Dawkins reaches back to 1858 to find a story of how Church authorities in Italy seized an 8 year old child, Edgardo Mortara, from his Jewish parents and raised him as a Roman Catholic. The boy had been baptized by an illiterate house girl when he was gravely ill and for the Italian Inquisition that was good enough to make him a Catholic.

It is a very sad story, but Dawkins concludes, bizarrely, that such tragedies could easily happen in today's religious climate. In a sense he's right but not in the way he intends. If this tragedy could be so easily repeated today why does he have to go back 150 years to find an example of it?

But never mind. He's trying to discredit the Church by showing how it perpetrated terrible injustices on families in the 19th century. He neglects to tell his readers that the state atheisms of the 20th century did far worse and inflicted their horrors on millions of families throughout the world. There have been a myriad of tragic accounts of Communist authorities in the 20th century taking children from "unfit" parents, particularly Christian parents, and raising them in state schools, but Dawkins is blind to the crimes committed in the name of atheism. Or maybe he doesn't think taking children from Christian parents is all that bad an idea.

He calls such abductions as happened to the Jewish boy in 19th century Italy a form of child abuse and deplores it, but then he likens that abduction to teaching children about God and instilling in them the precepts of the parents' Christianity. He says:

I am persuaded that the phrase 'child abuse' is no exaggeration when used to describe what teachers and priests are doing to children whom they encourage to believe in something like the punishment of unshriven mortal sins in an eternal hell.

So, teaching children traditional Christian doctrine is a form of child abuse, and what do humane societies do to parents who are abusing their children? They take them from them, of course, just like Edgardo Mortara was taken away from his parents by the Church. In other words, the logic of Dawkins' belief that religious instruction is a form of child abuse puts him squarely in the company of the Italian Inquisition of the 19th century. Oddly, Dawkins fails to see the irony.

I said above that Dawkins was right that children today could easily be taken from their parents, but not by Church authorities. The contemporary fascists who seek to control what children are taught are the Richard Dawkins' of the world. Consider these words of a colleague of Dawkins which he quotes with approval:

Children have a right not to have their minds addled by nonsense, and we as a society have a duty to protect them from it. So we should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe, for example in the literal truth of the Bible or that the planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children's teeth out or lock them in a dungeon.

Yes, this is a revolting passage, redolent of the totalitarian mindset of the Nazi and Communist fascisms of the 1930s. If you teach your children that Jesus loves them you are just as cruel as if you knocked their teeth out. Both the man who wrote this and Dawkins who quotes it are beyond parody.

Who decides what constitutes "nonsense"? No doubt this will be the task of the secular, liberal Darwinians in the academy. Who better qualified to recognize nonsense than people who write books like The God Delusion and who implicitly endorse inflicting the same cruelties on families for which they had just condemned the Italian Church?

Where does Dawkins' kind of thinking end? If parents are to be prohibited from passing on religious beliefs to their children what about moral beliefs which the cogniscenti deem substandard? What about political beliefs or any metaphysical beliefs such as opposition to Darwinism that offend the refined intellects of the arbiters of truth and reason? Who would enforce these contemptible rules in Dawkins' Brave New World? The God Delusion, amongst its many shortcomings, has this singular virtue: It gives the reader a pellucid glimpse into the workings and aspirations of the liberal mind. Their dream is to have total control over all that people think and do. People like Richard Dawkins are a genuine threat to human freedom. In Jonah Goldberg's felicitous image, they constitute smiley face fascism.

Then there is this bit of silliness:

Our society ... has accepted the preposterous idea that it is normal and right to indoctrinate tiny children in the religion of their parents, and to slap religious labels on them ....Please, please raise your consciousness about this and raise the roof whenever you hear it happening....

Richard needs to stay on his meds when he writes. To call a child a "Christian child" is simply an economical way of saying that the child is born to Christian parents and has been baptized in a Christian church. It doesn't mean that the child has made a conscious decision to be a Christian, but even if it did, so what? Most people reassess their religious beliefs as they mature and decide whether they want to retain them or not. It's hard to understand why Dawkins gets himself in such a swivet over it.

He wants parents to refrain from exerting any religious influence on a child, but I wonder if he was punctilious in not allowing his materialist beliefs to influence his own daughter. I doubt it. I also wonder what he would have done had his daughter one day told him that she wanted to be baptized and that she thought her old man's Darwinism was as daft as his atheism. I wouldn't be surprised if Dawkins "raised the roof" but not for the reason he urges us to do it.

There is one more chapter to The God Delusion. We'll examine it in a day or so. Meanwhile, don't let your children out of your sight around these people.

The God Delusion, Ch. 10

In the concluding chapter of The God Delusion Richard Dawkins ventures an explanation for how religions came to be. The short of it is that he thinks they may be an outgrowth of the childhood trait of having an invisible friend. He has no evidence of this to offer us, of course, so he moves on to other matters on which he can favor us with his silly speculations.

For example he castigates people who believe in eternal life for what he sees as the inconsistency of grieving at the death of a loved one. If religious people really believed in heaven why shouldn't they rejoice at the loved one's good fortune, he asks? Aside from the fact that grief is an emotion we feel because we are suffering a loss, not because our loved one is experiencing gain, Dawkins doesn't seem to realize that he has just spent pages deploring Islamists for acting completely consistently with their belief in eternal life when they sacrifice themselves in their suicide bombings. He is appalled that people believe in an eternal reward and act in accord with that belief and then we turn the page to find him scoffing at people who believe in an eternal reward and act in ways he thinks to be at odds with that belief. Dawkins' greatest consistency in TGD is his inconsistency.

He rules out miracles because they are so highly improbable, and then in the very next paragraph he tells us that evolution, which seems highly improbable, is almost inevitable, given the vastness of time. But if time and the existence of an infinite number of worlds make the improbable inevitable why doesn't that work for miracles as well? To apply Dawkinsian reasoning, in all the zillions of universes of the Many Worlds landscape there has to be at least one in which a man capable of working miracles is born and himself rises from the dead. We just happen to be in the world in which it happens. Why should the Many worlds Hypotheisis be able to explain the fine-tuning of the cosmos and the origin of life but not a man rising from the dead?

He argues that the fact that there is no afterlife should make this life all the more precious, but what it really does is make this life utterly meaningless. Death is the big eraser. It negates everything we've ever done. It renders everything pointless and absurd. Dawkins avers that his life is meaningful because he fills it with a "systematic endeavor to find out the truth about the real world," but for what end? When he dies whatever knowledge he has acquired will do him no good. He is like a man on his death bed trying to master a new language. It gives him something to do, like working crossword puzzles, but what does it really matter?

The Christian, on the other hand, views death from this side of it as a tragedy, a terrible evil, but from the other side as little more than an unpleasant interruption of one's ongoing life. All that we do in this life matters forever. There's a purpose in learning the language even late in one's life because it'll be something which will be useful and give one pleasure on the other side of death. There's a purpose in scientific study because what we learn here and now will be useful in eternity. But if death is the end then there's no purpose in anything and all that matters now is avoiding pain and experiencing pleasure.

The terrible irony is that Dawkins could be doing the science he loves and to which he is devoted, or something like it, forever. Tragically, though, he chooses to empty his love of real significance by despising the God which is the only ground of the truth and knowledge he longs to attain.

The God Delusion has been acclaimed by atheists around the world, but in fact they should be hoping to see the book pass quickly into oblivion. It will do more to set back their cause among intelligent readers than anything Christians could do. If this is the best that the atheist can muster as an argument against God, the seeker might rightly reason, then perhaps the case against God is not nearly as strong as he had thought. Indeed, TGD is a book which might be read and discussed by every Christian who wrestles with doubt. A thoughtful reading will allay the doubts and persuade the doubter that the case against God is, at bottom, pretty anemic.