A review of Richard Dawkins' new book The God Delusion by atheist Kenan Malik in the UK Telegraph is as revealing about Malik in particular and atheism in general as it is about Dawkins' book. Malik, who, like most reviewers, doesn't care for the book, nevertheless thinks that Dawkins offers devastating arguments against belief in God:
Dawkins is Britain's most famous atheist and in The God Delusion he gives eloquent vent to his uncompromising views. He begins by demolishing the two major arguments in favour of religion. For many people it is impossible to imagine how the complexity and intricate design of the natural world could have arisen by chance. Hence the need for a conscious designer - God.
It is true, Dawkins responds, that the probability of life having arisen by chance is as vanishingly small as the likelihood of a Jumbo Jet having being constructed by a hurricane sweeping through a scrap yard. But how much more improbable is the idea of an intelligent designer capable of taking all that scrap and turning it into a 747? After all, that intelligent designer, a far more complex entity than a Jumbo Jet, had himself somehow to be created. Evolution, Dawkins suggests, provides the only coherent alternative to both blind chance and 'intelligent design' because it creates complexity through innumerable small steps, each of which is 'slightly improbable, but not prohibitively so.'
There is so much askew with this analysis that I despair of being able to fit it all in one post. Nevertheless, I'll try:
1. How does one assign a probablitity to the scenario of a designer turning scrap into a jet? How do Dawkins and Malik know that such a feat by a cosmic designer is improbable? Clearly, they don't. They apparently assume that God doesn't exist and then conclude from that fact that it's therefore highly improbable that a designer created the universe. In other words they employ as a premise the very conclusion they want the reader to accept. This is called begging the question.
2. Why does Dawkins say, and Malik tacitly agree, that the designer has to have been created? Why do they assume that the designer could not have necessary existence? That is, why assume that the designer is not a being which does not depend upon anything else for its existence? It is certainly possible that such a being exist and that it is ontologically responsible for the design of our world.
3. Even if it is granted that the designer might require a cause how does that help the atheist? Dawkins is in the position of demanding that someone be able to say who designed the computer before he is permitted to claim that the computer is designed. The demand appears for all the world like an instance of changing the subject rather than having to meet the evidence for design head on.
We have good reason to believe that the universe requires a cause (i.e. it has contingent existence), and it may be that the cause of the universe is itself also caused, but so what? Once Dawkins grants that the universe has a cause beyond itself, a transcendent creator, he's pretty much forfeited the argument to the Intelligent Design people. What the ID theorists want to assert is simply that the universe is designed by an intelligent agent. Dawkins replies: "Okay, but what designed the intelligent agent?" - not seeing that the question comes too late to salvage his argument. The obvious answer that the IDer can give to the question is that he has no idea who or what designed the designer, nor does it matter. All he's arguing for is the proposition that the universe is intentionally designed. More than that he neither does, nor can, say.
4. Dawkins and Malik seem to misunderstand the nature of probablities. Probabilities are not additive, they are multiplicative. An innumerable number of very small probabilities does not add up to a large probability. It yields, rather, an impossibly tiny probability. In other words, the probablity of three events occuring together, if the probability of each event is 50%, is not 150%, it's .5 x .5 x .5 = .125 or 12.5 %. Increasing the number of highly improbable events does not make them more probable, it makes them less so. Surely Dawkins and Malik understand this.
The second major argument for God is that He is a necessary source of moral values. 'If God is dead, everything is permitted,' as Dostoevsky put it. In fact research shows that the moral sentiments of believers and atheists are not that distinct.
Malik misses the point here. The problem is not that believers and atheists hold different moral values, it is that if atheism is true there is no significant meaning to the concept of moral right and wrong. Atheists in their personal lives can certainly adopt the same values as believers, but the decision to do so is purely arbitrary. They could as easily adopt the opposite values and there would have been nothing wrong with doing so, because right and wrong are purely subjective in a Godless world.
Take, for example, the value of not hurting others. Why should someone adopt this rule of conduct? Why is it wrong to hurt people? Some might say it's wrong because we don't want people to hurt us, and that is certainly true, but that's not a reason to refrain from hurting others. There's no reason why I shouldn't hurt someone if I want to and if I can get away with it. It's certainly not wrong to do so, unless there's a moral authority which transcends human autonomy which forbids us from treating others unjustly.
Morality flows out of God's nature like light flows out of the sun. Were the sun not to exist neither would sunlight. Were God not to exist neither would moral value. Nothing, as Dostoyevsky noted, would be "wrong" in a moral sense.
In any case, Dawkins points out, moral values are not fixed but have changed over time. Where once slavery was justified through Biblical invocation, today most Christians believe that the practice is contrary to God's will. It is not that God has changed his mind but rather that, as social beliefs have progressed, so Christians have begun interpreting God's word differently. But if we can make up our own minds as to what is right and wrong, Dawkins asks, why do we need God in the first place?
This is rather surprising coming from someone of Dawkins' eminence. That opinions of what constitutes right and wrong behavior change is no argument against the assertion that God is a necessary condition for moral value. At most it suggests only that God's existence is not a sufficient condition for a proper apprehension of what is right and what is wrong. Moreover, there are certain moral principles that do not evolve over time, like the principles of doing justice and showing compassion. These are timeless although the way we implement them in any given age may change with circumstances.
The important point, however, is that if God does not exist there is nothing wrong with being unjust or uncompassionate. Others may not like that you choose injustice over justice, but what they like or dislike is not morally binding upon you.
Take, for instance, Dawkins's claim that religion is a form of child abuse. He believes with the psychologist Nicholas Humphrey that children 'have a human right not to have their minds crippled by exposure to other people's bad ideas' and that 'we should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe in the literal truth of the Bible than we should allow parents to knock their children's teeth out'.
If parents are going to be prevented by law from teaching their children bad ideas we might start with the idea that we have emerged by sheer happenstance out of the cosmic goop and that as finely tuned as the universe is, and as living things are, it's all just a colossal accident. We may also, if we're going to ban bad ideas, forbid parents from teaching their children that right and wrong, meaning and purpose, justice and injustice, human rights and dignity can all exist even if there is no God. That's more than just a bad idea, it elevates an impossibility to the status of a conviction.
Malik closes with this:
The moral of the story is that if you want an understanding of evolution or an argument for atheism, there are few better guides than Richard Dawkins.
If Dawkins is the expert who instructs us in how to demolish theism the theist certainly has little to fear. The explosives he employs as instruments of demolition are more dud than dynamite.