There has been a torrent of books by the so-called New Atheists in recent years, diatribes from the pens of biologist Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion, 2006), journalist Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great, 2007), writer Sam Harris (The End of Faith, 2004) and their ilk. Whatever their expertise in their specialisms, they have arrogantly marched forth into the fields of their own incompetence, and thereby done us all a great favour in showing that the New Atheism spawns intellectual pygmies of the philosophy of religion. As philosopher David B. Hart has remarked,
A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.
Their writings have drawn back the curtain to reveal the clanking machinery, the hollowness and the intellectual bankruptcy of the New Atheism. For this we are forever grateful, and when their other ideas have been discarded and relegated to footnotes, historians will surely point to their feet of clay displayed by their poor judgment, their bias, nastiness, ignorance and inability to structure logical argument in their writings on religion. As Hart confirms:
The best that we can now hope for [from New Atheists] are arguments pursued at only the most vulgar of intellectual levels, couched in an infantile and carpingly pompous tone, and lacking all but the meagerest traces of historical erudition or syllogistic rigour: Richard Dawkins triumphantly adducing “philosophical” arguments that a college freshman midway through his first logic course could dismantle in a trice…
The author of The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker can never again be taken seriously as a clear thinker: he has well and truly shot his bolt and missed his target.
Not that he is unaware of his crass ignorance. When challenged by biophysicist and theologian Alister McGrath about his ignorance of Christian theology, as displayed in The God Delusion that was aimed mainly as an attack on the God of Abraham, Dawkins replied
Yes, I have, of course, met this point before. It sounds superficially fair. But it presupposes that there is something in Christian theology to be ignorant about. The entire thrust of my position is that Christian theology is a non-subject. It is empty. Vacuous. Devoid of coherence or content
A puerile and unworthy answer. And how absurdly self-refuting. One cannot expect to be taken seriously writing a lengthy diatribe attacking Christian theology and not hold the presupposition that Christian theology is a subject that has content, and that it is therefore something that one can be ignorant about. Otherwise, Dawkins is a presbyopic old fool tilting at windmills. Dawkins is free to believe that there is no God, but he is self-evidently a fool to pretend that theology has no content when he is spending so much time attacking it. And if theology has content, what a fool to attack it without understanding it.
We begin our analysis by noting that those who attack religion have long had a penchant for the illogical and the self-refuting. One wonders whether their inability to spot self-referential gibberish and the fallacies within their own thoughts are the very causes of their atheism. We marvel how the manuscript of the sceptical eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume, An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, ever made it to his publishers when within its pages he had declared
If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity and number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning methods of fact and existence? No. Commit it to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion!
From its own content, Hume’s essay should have joined the great conflagration since he could not have failed to notice that the answer was ‘No’ to both questions concerning itself.
Moving to the following century, we had the mathematician W.K. Clifford declaring in his 1877 essay The Ethics of Belief that
it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.
Doubtless Clifford believed his own maxim, but as he could not provide sufficient evidence for the truth of this moral and ethical statement, he was, by his own definition, always wrong to believe it, and, of course, even more blameworthy to propagate a wrong belief.
In the twentieth century we had the so-called logical positivists, and their great champion and atheist A.J. Ayer, with his Language, Truth and Logic (1936), who, like Dawkins, taught that all religious discourse was meaningless. Ayer set out the central tenet of logical positivism that a sentence can only be meaningful if it has verifiable empirical import. However, that statement is itself empirically unverifiable, and so the central tenet of logical positivism is, by its own definition, meaningless.
The same degree of inconsistency and self-referential meaninglessness infects the writings of the twenty-first century New Atheists. If existence is defined as limited to what is natural, and what is natural is defined in terms of what natural science can reveal, then the definition of existence is self-limiting, and the supernatural is eliminated, not in reality, but by definition. If the supernatural is defined as an effect or entity that violates the inviolable, then we would all agree that there can be no supernatural according to that definition. Theists are not so stupid as not to understand language, truth and logic. They have, after all, a couple of thousand years’ head start over the New Atheists. And some rather bigger hitters.
Science itself does not refute the existence of God, but definitions can be drawn as narrowly as one likes to exclude entities and events – in language and in logic, but not necessarily in reality. If atheists want to draw up definitions that exclude God, so be it: but they cannot from a narrow definition infer the non-existence of an entity in reality that was deliberately excluded from their contrived narrow definition. But this is, essentially, what they do. If I define that there is no copper in the universe, I cannot influence the reality of whether copper really exists in the universe ‘out there’, only that there is none in the universe of my own linguistic convention. The New Atheists seem to be infected with postmodernist, Kuhnian and constructivist ideas that reality is what I (or my group) think it to be. In postmodernism and Kuhnian science, reality is constructed not found. This is a far cry from the traditional demarcation that fiction is whatever I care to believe irrespective of reality, whereas fact is what is real, irrespective of what I believe. The constructivist approach of New Atheism is the classic philosophical fallacy of confusing methods, presuppositions and descriptions of reality with reality itself. So when atheists speak about the universe, they are speaking about the universe limited to their own definition, a concept of their own creation. When theists talk about the universe they are talking about the universe of God’s creation, as defined by the revelation they accept. And they are not the same universe. And the real universe can be something different again. C.F Wiezsacker in The Relevance of Science notes that
It is not by its conclusions, but by its methodological starting point, that modern science excludes direct creation. Our methodology would not be honest if this fact were denied…Such is the faith in the science of our time…
As the mathematician David Berlinski has remarked
The attack on traditional religious thought marks the consolidation in our time of science as the single system of belief in which rational men and women might place their faith, and if not their faith, then certainly their devotion. From cosmology to biology, its narratives have become the narratives.
Atheists are usually prepared to admit that the universe has the appearance of design, an honest observation that they are quick to couple with the assertion that a mere appearance of design does not automatically infer a designer because it could all be an illusion. Quite so. But the plausibility that something with the appearance of design might have that appearance because it is actually designed is ruled out by atheists not by evidence and conclusions but by presuppositions and prejudice.
So, for example, the geneticist Richard Lewontin will accept the atheist scientific mythological narrative
in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs…in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories.
Why? Because he “cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door”. Fine. Thanks for the honesty. At least Lewontin’s prejudice is there for all to see. See more about atheist mythology.
Richard Dawkins loves straw man arguments. Hart warns that he is severely challenged in even the most elementary of logic and that he has a
philosophically illiterate inability to distinguish between…theoretical claims about material causality and logical claims about the mystery of existence
Dawkins argues that there are two competing explanations for the apparent design in the universe from which we must choose:
1. A hypothesis involving a designer, that is, a complex being to account for the complexity that we see.
2. A hypothesis, with supporting theories, that explains how, from simple origins and principles, something more complex can emerge.
He does not inform his readers (is he even aware of it himself?) that the first hypothesis is not one that Christian theists have ever held. He has invented the concept of a ‘complex being’, which cannot be the Christian God since their God is always held to be simple. So, by not actually stating the Christian hypothesis, and introducing a hypothesis held by no-one, Dawkins sets up an argument that is a mere illusion to reach a conclusion that is a mere deception. As we noted earlier, and as Hart confirms,
Numerous attempts have been made…to apprise Dawkins of what the traditional definition of divine simplicity implies, and of how it logically follows from the very idea of transcendence, and to explain to him what it means to speak of God as the transcendent fullness of actuality, and how this differs in kind from talk of quantitative degrees of composite complexity. But all the evidence suggests that Dawkins has never understood the point being made, and it is his unfortunate habit contemptuously to dismiss as meaningless concepts whose meanings elude him. Frankly, going solely on the record of his published work, it would be rash to assume that Dawkins has ever learned how to reason his way to the end of a simple syllogism.
Then there is his ‘Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit’. Dawkins was not at all amused when atheist cosmologist Fred Hoyle, who held that life must have come from an extraterrestrial source because of its improbability originating here, stated 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.
Not wanting to let a good argument get the better of him, Dawkins recycled the argument to turn it against theism: if any cause is inadequate to bring life into existence because life is improbable, then God is inadequate for the same reason. Any theist will instantly recognize the fallacy of such a position: life is indeed exceedingly improbable if it is brought about by raw, undirected, unintelligent and random causes, but there is no such improbability if it is brought about by a designer. As Hoyle had rightly stated: it is utterly improbable that a hurricane can assemble a aircraft from scrapyard junk, yet there is nothing improbable about an aircraft emerging from Boeing’s Seattle factory – it happens all the time. Random outcomes can be exceedingly improbable: intelligently designed outcomes need not be.
With regard to the appearance of design (which Dawkins describes as a mere ‘illusion’), Fred Hoyle had also stated that
The universe looks like a put-up job
and the physicist Paul Davies remarked that
Scientists are slowly waking up to an inconvenient truth – the universe looks surprisingly like a fix. The issue concerns the very laws of nature themselves…change any one of them and the consequences would be lethal.
It is entirely reasonable to ask the question why things are as they are when they seem to be anything but arbitrary. Only after proper inquiry and exhausting all answers could we possibly conclude that such a question is meaningless – not at the start of the inquiry as does theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, another demi-god in the atheist cult’s pantheon. [Update: Hawking in his 2010 book The Grand Design and his appearance on Larry King Live in September 2010 now ascribes it all to the law of gravity, natural law and M-Theory; but laws are merely descriptions of properties and behaviours, so they are a circular argument, and M-Theory is highly speculative and suffers from the same circularity.]
The obvious answer to the question is the one that theists have always offered – the universe looks like a fix and a put-up job because it is a fix and a put-up job. That’s not a proof, of course. But neither is it reasonable to think the answer false because it is obvious – it is a most reasonable working hypothesis until falsified. To suggest that it is not a reasonable working hypothesis until falsified is to betray prejudice, emotion and ulterior motives. As Berlinski notes
It is emotionally unacceptable because a universe that looks like a put-up job puts off a great many physicists. They have thus made every effort to find an alternative. Did you imagine that science was a disinterested pursuit of truth? Well, you were wrong.
The contrived mechanism that Richard Dawkins has borrowed from these physicists is the idea of the multiverse: if there are an infinite number of universes, there must be the possibility, however improbable, that at least one of them has the physical laws and conditions just right to permit human existence, and obviously we’re in such a one. This chimes with his argument for evolution – given enough universes any universe is possible, including this one; given enough time in this universe, anything is possible, including the emergence of Richard Dawkins.
But of course, this is just a metaphysical argument and not a scientific one according to Dawkins’ own definitions of what would constitute science. Quite why belief in a plurality of universes with no creators is superior to a belief in a single universe with a single Creator is given by Dawkins as follows
The key difference between the radically extravagant God hypothesis and the apparently extravagant multiverse hypothesis is one of statistical improbability.
Note that it’s all down to statistics and probability. Quite apart from the word games that Dawkins is using, begging the question by using terms such as ‘radically extravagant’ and ‘apparently extravagant’, the idea that one can apply the laws of statistical probability to the existence of God and other universes is breathtakingly stupid. Yet this nonsense becomes the centrepiece for his argument in The God Delusion against the existence of God. Dawkins’ argument in Chapter 4, Why there is almost certainly no God, can be summed up as follows
1. “The universe is improbable”
2. “The temptation [to explain the appearance of the universe by an appeal to a designer] is a false one, because the designer hypothesis 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.”
Firstly, we do not concede to Dawkins the benefit of the first premise, so his argument doesn’t get out of the starting blocks. ‘The universe is improbable’ is a starting point for an argument where this is a given, not necessarily what pertains in the present universe. It is an atheistic premise. The universe is only improbable if there is no God, so to start with the improbability of the universe is to assume the proposition to be proved in the premises, a logical fallacy known as begging the question, petitio principii, more of which below. So the argument starts out as a hopeless fallacy, but as we see, Dawkins soldiers on with his argument that if the universe is improbable,
It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable
Such as a Creator. Well, given a premise that is begging the question, Dawkins manages to wade even deeper into the quagmire of the fallacious argument. Why an improbable universe would demand an improbable creator, never mind a more improbable creator, Dawkins declines to say. So we shall allow him to sink without throwing him a lifeline. Atheist arguments such as this are fallacious in attempting to force a dilemma where none can exist. This is cheeky rhetoric, smoke and mirrors, not the standard we expect from those who according to New Atheist Peter Atkins, colleague of Dawkins at Oxford, are “beacons of rationality, and intellectually honest”.
Dawkins confuses tendencies and categories that are incompatible and incommensurable. When theories are incommensurable, there is no way in which they can be compared with each other to determine which better explains the observable data. Probabilities belong to the world in which things happen because they might; creation belongs to the world in which things happen because they must. There is nothing contingent or chancy about divine creation; there is everything contingent and chancy about emergence of intelligent life and complexity from randomness. Creation is explained by reference to creators; chance events are explained by appealing to chance.
Theories of probability assign numbers to events. Quite apart from the fact that the eternal being of God, as understood by Christians, is not an ‘event’, the hypothetical emergence of some improbable Creator would have to be an improbable event in virtue of the process that controls the probability of such an event. Just which processes are in operation designed to yield a Deity as a possible outcome, by which Dawkins can determine the probability of such event, Dawkins does not say, nor can he. Having failed to know and establish the laws, conditions and circumstances by which the Deity’s probability is assigned, Dawkins also neglects to tell us how long the conditions have been in operation. Taking a leaf out of Dawkins’ writings on the probability of the improbable, we would have to admit that, after all, the Creator probably has all the time in the world. In truth, Dawkins can say nothing about the probability or improbability of God, and the very concept, the cornerstone of his argument, turns out to be an absurdity.
In formal logic, ‘All ravens are black’ is equivalent to ‘all non-black entities are not ravens’. One cannot rationally hold the one without the other. On his own admission, Dawkins holds the view that there are improbable events, and since he also denies God he must believe that ‘All improbable events are not God-caused events’ – this, at least, is what he is at pains to prove with regard to the appearance of life and the universe. But that logically also means that ‘All God-caused events are not improbable events’. So, the universe need not be improbable. Indeed, IF God exists, the appearance of the universe would NOT be improbable. To know whether the universe is improbable, one would first need to know whether God exists.
To say ‘If God created the universe, then the universe is not improbable’, would thus seem to be uncontroversial (except, it seems, to Dawkins). One does not have to accept that God DID create the world – there’s a big ‘IF’ in there as a get-out. But IF there is a God who actually made the world, THEN there can be nothing contingent or improbable about its existence. Again, this can be stated two ways that are logically identical:
If God created the universe, then the universe is not improbable.
If the universe is improbable, then God did not create the universe.
Thus, if the universe is improbable (Dawkins’ “begging the question” premise) then we will all agree that God did not create it. Big deal: Dawkins’ conclusion is nothing other that what he logically sneaks into the premise ‘the universe is improbable’, i.e. that God did not create the world. The sleight of hand is obvious, and it’s all the more amateurish because Dawkins cannot hope to establish the proposition that the universe is improbable. The most that one might say without begging the question is that a universe such as ours would be improbable had it not been created by God. A starting point with some intellectual integrity would be: If God does not exist, then the emergence of the universe would be improbable. We can perhaps all agree on that, theists, creationists, agnostics, evolutionists and atheists alike. But by quietly ignoring the ‘if’ part of the foundation on which we all agree, and making the ‘then’ part his starting proposition, his premise, i.e. ‘the universe is improbable’, Dawkins is just trying to pull a fast one. No rational thinker worth his salt should let him get away with that sleight of hand: that is not a logical deduction or inference from the position on which we all can agree.
This, then, is the atheist delusion.