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A respected Oxford ethologist and dedicated popularizer of evolutionary biology, Richard Dawkins is one of the most influential scientists of our age. He is arguably even more famous – along with Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens – as one of the “Four Horsemen of New Atheism.”
The God Delusion – a witty but methodical examination of the irrationality of the idea of God (and the consequences of its uncritical acceptance) – is probably his most notable contribution to the new atheist movement. So, get ready to examine the God hypothesis with Dawkins and discover why there is almost certainly no supreme being.
In the first months of 1944, Randolph Churchill, the only son of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, parachuted into Yugoslavia to take part in the so-called Maclean Mission. Soon after, he was joined by other important pre-war figures, including Brideshead Revisited author, Evelyn Waugh. A devoted Catholic since 1930, Waugh was amazed to hear that Randolph had never read a single line from the Holy Scripture. So, in an attempt to keep him quiet, he bet Randolph twenty pounds that he couldn’t read the Bible in a fortnight. Randolph lost the bet, but the outcome wasn’t precisely what Waugh had hoped for. “He is hideously excited,” the novelist related in a letter to Nancy Mitford in November 1944. “He keeps reading quotations aloud: ‘I say I bet you didn’t know this came in the Bible…’ or merely slapping his side and chortling ‘God, isn’t God a disgrace!’”
Whether we want it or not, most of us are desensitized to the horror of the ways of God. Being “a naïf blessed with the perspective of innocence” even at the age of 33, Randolph Churchill could see God for what he truly is: in the words of Richard Dawkins, “arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction.” He is not only jealous but also proud of his jealousy; he is not only unforgiving but also oftentimes unjust; and even when he is just – he is vindictive and bloodthirsty in his justice (think Egypt, for one). He is also a control freak and a bully, a misogynistic, homophobic, sadomasochistic, racist, genocidal and even infanticidal maniac.
True, that’s a mouthful of adjectives, but each of these traits can be illustrated with a story taken straight from the Bible. Because of this, the God of the Old Testament is actually an easy target for any scientist willing to show how outdated an idea He – and everything that comes with Him – actually is. That is why Richard Dawkins formulates the God Hypothesis a bit more defensibly: “there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.” He uses the word “hypothesis” for a reason: if there is such a thing as an interventionist creator – a god who has created the world and is capable of affecting the outcomes of human affairs – then He should be scientifically investigatable with the tools that allow us to examine all other cause-and-effect relationships. And when we investigate anything in science, we always start with a hypothesis and try our best to falsify it, that is, to find observable evidence that demonstrates it to be false. In the absence of such evidence, we consider that hypothesis necessarily validated.
The idea of God is almost as old as humanity, so, understandably, Dawkins is not the first one to try to explore His existence in a more rigorous manner. That’s why, before endeavoring to challenge God via a fair share of his own reasons, Dawkins goes over the arguments of the most renowned apologists of God in the past and attempts to demonstrate what’s wrong with all of their proofs. Let’s look at the most interesting three examples.
Though convinced that God’s existence is self-evident, in the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas became one of the first theologians in history who tried to demonstrate this by means of observable proofs. So, he proposed these five arguments for the existence of God:
Dawkins uses quotation marks around the word “proof” in Aquinas’ case, and he does this for a reason: none of his five oft-quoted arguments can bear even the simplest scientific analysis. The first three are just different ways of saying the same thing since they all rely upon the idea of God being the terminator of infinite regress. However, why should God be immune to regress, or, better yet, why should the terminator be a conscious human-like being? Why shouldn’t it be something like the Big Bang, for example? Moreover, even if it is a sentient being that started everything, why should this being be all the best things at once?
In fact, that leads us to the refutation of Aquinas’ fourth argument for God which says that he must be the best because there are degrees in nature, but nothing is perfect in this world. However, there are also degrees in bad things around us, such as, say, body odor. Why shouldn’t God embody the perfect maximum of conceivable smelliness? After all, Aquinas’ argument not only allows – but requires that.
Aquinas’ final argument is by far the most interesting of the five, and that’s why we’ll come back to it below. But, before that, let’s cast a cold eye on two other interesting arguments in favor of God’s existence.
Even before Thomas Aquinas, an Italian Benedictine monk of the 11th century by the name of Anselm of Canterbury almost casually (in the form of a prayer) proposed one of the most enduring proofs of God’s existence, dubbed the ontological proof by subsequent philosophers.
Anselm’s argument takes as a given that God must be that “being than which no greater can be conceived,” and proceeds from there. Even fools who don’t believe in God, he thought, must have the idea of a superior being in their minds. Now, something that exists in the mind can’t be as good as something similar that exists in reality as well: even a single homemade chicken wing is by far tastier than a whole bucket of imagined KFC hot wings. Consequently, a superior being can’t only exist in the mind, because then an even greater being than it would be possible – namely, a similar one that also exists in reality. Therefore, the greatest possible being (God) must be real by default.
Even contemporaries of Anselm found this line of thought somewhat funny. Dawkins finds it aesthetically offensive because it’s based on “logomachist trickery” and not on sound logic. Just like Aquinas’ argument from degree, the ontological proof can be used about absolutely everything, ranging from a perfect island to a perfect demon – why shouldn’t they exist as well? David Hume’s objections were even more basic: why should everything that we can imagine necessarily exist in reality as well? What about centaurs and fairies? And what about different gods, as Zeus or Vishnu or Allah?
German philosopher Immanuel Kant went even a step further: why should “existing” necessarily add perfection to the essence of being? An imagined work of art is, almost by rule, much more perfect than after its materialization. Doesn’t that mean that, contrary to Anselm’s beliefs, a real God is, in fact, less perfect than an imagined one?
OK, you say, and what about the Bible? Isn’t that book proof in itself? Not only believers, but also God Himself says that He makes no mistakes, and the Bible is, for all intents and purposes, undoubtedly, His Word incarnate.
What Bible? asks Richard Dawkins. Because there are at least three different Bibles, depending on your Christian denomination. Moreover, each one of them is rife with gaping holes and contradictions most fiction writers would be ashamed of. The Old Testament especially: the first three books of Genesis, for example, relate two different versions of the Creation, the first one of which necessarily assumes that God’s image must encompass both male and female traits and that the two sexes were created simultaneously.
But, let’s leave the hodgepodge that is the Old Testament aside and turn our attention to the Gospels and such a monumental event as Christ’s birth. Really, where was Jesus born? If you ask Matthew and Luke the answer is Bethlehem, in accordance with an old prophecy; but if you ask John, the answer is any city but Bethlehem. Moreover, since Luke mentions events that historians are able to independently check, it couldn’t have happened at the time of Herod and the massacre of the innocent, because the census that supposedly forced Joseph to Bethlehem occurred in AD 6, long after Herod’s death.
Infallible? Guess again! The Bible is pretty inconsistent and self-contradictory and, if written by God, it presupposes a strange kind of imperfect God, to say the least, a worse writer than most humans.
Thomas Aquinas’ argument from design (the one we have intentionally left for later) is perhaps the only argument still in regular use today. In fact, it is so widely dispersed, that for too many religious people, it still sounds like “the ultimate knockdown argument.” After all, as Cicero presumed even before Christ’s birth (and William Paley elaborated further in the 18th century), if you happen upon a sundial or a clock on the street, the first thing you’d infer from its complexity is certainly that it must tell the time by design and not by chance. How then can anyone imagine that the universe as a whole is anything but designed, when it embraces everything – including these artifacts (i.e., clocks) and their artificers (i.e. clockmakers)?
Well, Cicero and Paley were right: the first thing one might suppose after seeing something as complex as a human being is that it must be designed by something. However, yet again, this shouldn’t mean that this something is a conscious, sentient being – and in the second half of the 19th century, Charles Darwin demonstrably proved that, in fact, it isn’t. Just like something before there was anything (the Big Bang) created everything in the known universe, something that wasn’t a designer in itself designed all known life forms by way of necessity. And that something is evolution.
Creationists, however, would beg to differ: they are pretty adamant that designer-less evolution would never be able to create something as complex as humans. Misappropriating an analogy used by noted English astronomer Fred Hoyle, they often say that the probability of life originating on Earth is no greater than the chance that a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard, would have the luck to assemble a Boeing 747. As anyone even remotely familiar with Darwin’s theory knows, this is simply not true. However, more importantly for Dawkins’ position, it is also beside the point. Because, however statistically improbable it is for a hurricane to assemble a Boeing 747 from a scrapyard, the design of the Designer himself has got to be at least as improbable, because God, as postulated by believers, is much more complex than a simple plane – He is, Dawkins says, the Ultimate Boeing 747.
“The designer hypothesis,” concludes Dawkins, “immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability. It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable." In other words, even if they were improbable (which they are not), the Big Bang and evolution would still be much more probable events than God. So, the burden of proof, by definition, lies with theologians – and certainly not with scientists.
If we had to use one word to describe The God Delusion, it would probably be “significant.” Because whether you’re a theist or an atheist, Richard Dawkins’ book is nothing short of a must-read.
Don’t indoctrinate your children with religion: allow them to make a choice for themselves when they are mature enough to make it. Until then, teach them indiscriminately about everything and stimulate their skepticism and critical faculties.
Richard Dawkins is a popular and prolific author on evolutionary biology. He holds a host of honorary degrees at many universities including a doctorate in science at Oxford. His reputation as a public intellectual brings him in the... (Read more)
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