Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, a book that attempted to expose logical faultiness of religion and its’ cause of much suffering in the world, is the most read atheistic literature in our times. In this series of articles, I explored different prominent atheists and agnostics reviews of The God Delusion.
My first reviewer is an evolutionary geneticist H. Allen Orr. His review, “ A Mission To Convert” , appeared on The New York Times on January 11th 2007. I also included Daniel Dennett’s response toward Orr’s review and Orr’s reply to Dennett. In the next articles, I will go through an American philosopher Thomas Nagel, New York Times reviewer Jim Holt, culture editor Jonathan Derbyshire, and last the Guardian reviewer Andrew Brown take on Dawkins’ The God Delusion.
The God Delusion: Here Comes A Missionary To The …
Orr correctly observed that Dawkins’ mission in The God Delusion is to convert. Dawkins “is an enemy of religion, wants to explain why, and hope thereby to drive the beast to extinction”.
“Dawkins is not concerned with the alleged detailed characteristics of God”, reviewed Orr, “but with whether any form of the God Hypothesis is defensible”. Dawkins’ answer is “almost certainly not”.
Reviewing the first few chapters of The God Delusion, “which are given over to philosophical matters”, Orr wrote,
Dawkins summarizes the traditional philosophical arguments for God’s existence, from Aquinas through pre-Darwinian arguments from biological design, along with the traditional arguments against them. In a later chapter entitled “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God,” Dawkins himself plays philosopher, presenting the chief argument of his book. The God Hypothesis, he tells us, is close to “ruled out by the laws of probability.” Dawkins’s demonstration involves what he calls the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit. This is his variation on a standard creationist argument. By tweaking that argument in a clever way, Dawkins claims it now leads to a conclusion that’s the opposite of the traditional creationist on
Expounding creationist argument, viz., the absurdity of irreducibly complex biological system arising by natural means “without the intercession of a designer mind” and comparing the probability of assembling Boeing 747 from a tornado-ed junkyard to that of life assembling itself spontaneously, which is a popular illustration given by creationists, Orr explained that Dawkins responded to design argument with a “judo-like move” in which he turned creationist’s logic against itself.
Quoting Dawkins, “[a] designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right.” Orr wrote,
In short, only complicated objects can design simpler ones; information cannot flow in the other direction, with simple objects designing complicated ones. But that means any designer God would have to be more complex—and thus even more improbable—than the universe he was supposed to explain. This argument, Dawkins concludes, “comes close to proving that God does not exist”: the God Hypothesis has a vanishingly small probability of being right.
Turning his guns towards Dawkins’ own Ultimate Boeing 747 argument against God which Dawkins “is suddenly uninterested in criticism and writes that his argument is “unanswerable”, Orr asked,
So why, you might wonder, is a clever philosophical argument for God subject to withering criticism while one against God gets a free pass and is deemed devastating?
“Dawkins, so far as I can tell,” commented Orr, “is unconcerned that the central argument of his book bears more than a passing resemblance to those clever philosophical proofs for the existence of God that he dismisses”. Orr believe that you do not need to be a creationist to note “that Dawkins’ argument suffers from at least two potential problems.” He wrote,
First, as others have pointed out, if he is right, the design hypothesis essentially must be wrong and the alternative naturalistic hypothesis essentially must be right. But since when is a scientific hypothesis confirmed by philosophical gymnastics, not data? Second, the fact that we as scientists find a hypothesis question-begging—as when Dawkins asks “who designed the designer?”—cannot, in itself, settle its truth value. It could, after all, be a brute fact of the universe that it derives from some transcendent mind, however question-begging this may seem. What explanations we find satisfying might say more about us than about the explanations. Why, for example, is Dawkins so untroubled by his own (large) assumption that both matter and the laws of nature can be viewed as given? Why isn’t that question-begging?
Spinning towards the evils of religion, Orr correctly appreciated Dawkins for reminding us the “horrors committed in the name of God”. “No decent person can fail to be repulsed by the sins committed in the name of religion” wrote Orr.
He agreed that religion can be bad, but “compared to what?” Orr dimmed that Dawkins was unfair to treated religion as practice and atheism as theory. “[F]airness requires that we compare both religion and atheism as practiced or both as theory”.
Comparing both “religious and atheist institutions” as practice, “the facts of history do not, [Orr] believe, demonstrate beyond doubt that atheism comes out on the side of the angels”. He wrote,
Dawkins has a difficult time facing up to the dual facts that (1) the twentieth century was an experiment in secularism; and (2) the result was secular evil, an evil that, if anything, was more spectacularly virulent than that which came before.
Orr pointed out the problem, which Dawkins tends to wave away, is that historical facts shows that “latter days have witnessed blood-curdling experiments in institutional atheism”.
Orr admires much of Dawkins works, mostly The Selfish Gene (1976), which he dimmed as his best work of popular science ever written, but part way with Dawkins’ case in The God Delusion. He concluded,
Indeed, The God Delusion seems to me badly flawed. Though I once labeled Dawkins a professional atheist, I’m forced, after reading his new book, to conclude he’s actually more an amateur. I don’t pretend to know whether there’s more to the world than meets the eye and, for all I know, Dawkins’s general conclusion is right. But his book makes a far from convincing case.
Answering Orr, Dennett admitted that “indeed recherché versions of these traditional arguments [for existence of God] that perhaps have not yet been exhaustively eviscerated by scholars”. But Dawkins ignores them because The God Delusion “ is a consciousness-raiser aimed at the general religious public, not an attempt to contribute to the academic microdiscipline of philosophical theology”.
Attempting to rescue Dawkins, Dennett wrote,
The arguments Dawkins exposes and rebuts are the arguments that waft from thousands of pulpits every week and reach millions of television viewers every day, and neither the televangelists nor the authors of best-selling spiritual books pay the slightest heed to the subtleties of the theologians either.
Orr: Broad Audience Doesn’t Mean Ignoring Best Thinking On A Subject, Dennett.
Orr found two things wrong with Dennett’s objection viz., “The God Delusion was, [Dennett ]says, a popular work and, as such, one can’t expect it to grapple seriously with religious thought.” Orr expounded,
The first is that the mere fact that a book is intended for a broad audience doesn’t mean its author can ignore the best thinking on a subject. Indeed it’s precisely the task of the popularizer to take this best thinking and present it in a form that can be understood by intelligent laymen.[…]
The second thing wrong with Dennett’s objection is that it’s simply not true that The God Delusion was merely a popular survey and “not an attempt to contribute to …philosophical theology.”
Orr observed that Dennett forgot that Dawkins’ “unanswerable” argument which he boasted to “stumped all theologian who had met it” was indeed a contribution to philosophical theology. It is absurd, wrote Orr, “to pretend now that The God Delusion had no philosophical ambitions.” He went further,
It also won’t do to claim, as Dennett does, that Dawkins’s book was concerned only with arguments “that waft from thousands of pulpits every week and reach millions of television viewers every day.” Dawkins explicitly stated that he was targeting all forms of the God Hypothesis, including deism, and insisted that all were victims of his arguments.
Orr believed that “Dennett fundamentally misunderstands [his] review”. Orr dimmed that Dennett believed that he was “disturbed by Dawkins’s atheism and pointedly asks which religious thinkers [he] prefer instead.” Orr made it clear that he “does not have problem with where Dawkins arrived but with how he got there”
Disclaimers: I am terribly biased and unfairly hard on Dawkins’ The God Delusion. My aim is for us to critically examine Dawkins’ case against the existence of God. Whether we agree or disagree with Dawkins’ conclusions, I believe we ought to wrestle with strength and weakness of his arguments. As far as Orr is concerned The God Delusion’s case is a disappointment. Dawkins could and I believe can do better.