Richard Dawkins and the Straw-god

on September 19, 2009

The Wall Street Journal: “Man vs. GodAsk the wrong question; get the wrong answers.

The Wall Street Journal asked both Karen Armstrong, a former nun and author of The Case for God, and Richard Dawkins, famous anti-theist, to answer the question “Where does evolution leave God?” (a loaded question full of fallacies in its own right). The catch is that neither could see what the other was writing.

Her god cannot be known, since that is idol worship.

For her part, Karen Armstrong dredged up a mix of syncretism (all religions are really the same), split magesteria (religion and science do not address the “same questions”), and post-modern revisionistic history (beginning with the assumption that the Bible cannot be taken at face value). Her argument is best summed up with her claim that

[r]eligion was not supposed to provide explanations that lay within the competence of reason but to help us live creatively with realities for which there are no easy solutions and find an interior haven of peace; today, however, many have opted for unsustainable certainty instead.

The god she proposes, however, is not God at all. Her god cannot be known, since that is idol worship; he cannot interact with the universe, since “science” (i.e., naturalism) informs us as to reality; and he cannot communicate clearly—if at all—since her god is whatever myth, enlightenment, or nirvana suits a particular person. This god of hers is nothing more than that “which cannot easily be put into words.” Thus, her god is a powerless, useless appendage to the universe. Faith without certainty is not faith (Hebrews 11:16)—it is agnosticism dressed up with spiritual words.

Dawkins, at least, realizes that evolution (as a tenet of naturalism) excludes God. To him, evolution is the “universe’s greatest work” and the “creator of life.” Evolution, in fact, leaves God with

nothing to do, and no achievements that might attract our praise, our worship or our fear. Evolution is God’s redundancy notice, his pink slip. But we have to go further. A complex creative intelligence with nothing to do is not just redundant. A divine designer is all but ruled out by the consideration that he must at least as complex as the entities he was wheeled out to explain [sic]. God is not dead. He was never alive in the first place.

In one sense, we agree with Dawkins (we’ll get to the flaws in his thinking later). If naturalism were the correct means of understanding the universe and life, then God would be at best a superfluous concept—something that theistic evolutionists would do well to learn. There are no “magesteria”; naturalists are far too greedy to allow anything to slip through their fingers. They want sole possession of all explanations. God need not apply.

What should trouble even atheists here is the personification Dawkins applies to evolution.

That isn’t to say that Dawkins presents a compelling argument. Let’s examine some of his claims to underscore the holes in his logic and the biases he refuses to admit:

Evolution is the universe’s greatest work. Evolution is the creator of life, and life is arguably the most surprising and most beautiful production that the laws of physics have ever generated.

What should trouble even atheists here is the personification Dawkins applies to evolution. Of course, he means that evolution, while not truly sentient, is capable of doing the creative work many attribute to God. This is convenient shorthand. However, behind this personification is the tacit reminder that naturalism is a type of religious expression, complete with a creation myth (big bang, abiogenesis, and evolution), priesthood (scientists), religious texts (Origin of Species, to name one), and an accepted order of things (a consistent universe)—as well as answers to the great “why” questions of existence.

What is so special about life? It never violates the laws of physics. Nothing does (if anything did, physicists would just have to formulate new laws—it’s happened often enough in the history of science).

In other words, miracles are impossible because they violate the laws of physics. Anything that seems to be a miracle would simply change the accepted laws so that it is no longer a miracle, but an aspect of the new laws. Of course, the definition of an actual miracle is that it is a one-time event that does violate the laws of physics. In other words, it need not be accounted for by scientific explanation or the normal operation of the universe because it happens only in a very specific context. Simply excluding the possibility of a miracle a priori does not prove they cannot happen. It simply betrays the bias of the observer—and the arrogance of assuming that the observer knows that a violation of those laws has never happened and could not.

If we didn’t know about life we wouldn’t believe it was possible—except, of course, that there’d then be nobody around to do the disbelieving!

While we can observe the characteristic of existence, the means of existence is not an observable fact.

This assumption here is a non sequitur. It does not follow that because we are here, life must have evolved. One could legitimately counter that since we are here, God must have created us. While we can observe the characteristic of existence (i.e., we are here), the means of existence is not an observable fact.

Not once do any of these creatures disobey one jot or tittle of the laws of physics. Far from violating the laws of thermodynamics (as is often ignorantly alleged) they are relentlessly driven by them. Far from violating the laws of motion, animals exploit them to their advantage as they walk, run, dodge and jink, leap and fly, pounce on prey or spring to safety.

Yes, but naturalists must assume that life did violate the constraints of biogenesis at some point. Dawkins conveniently omits this law of biology (and physics) that life cannot arise spontaneously from nonliving material. This includes both complex and “simple” life-forms, both now and in the past (without a supernatural act). We learn from thermodynamics that the universe is gradually winding down, which is consistent with the biblical account. Whether evolution violates thermodynamic principles is not the point; the point is the processes supposedly driving Darwinian evolution (e.g., natural selection, mutations, gene drift) cannot accomplish the miraculous feats that Dawkins attributes to them (e.g., making bunnies from biological goo).

Living things, of course, abide by the laws that govern the universe. But there is no justification for claiming that a violation cannot happen in any instance—despite the evidence. For example, hundreds of eyewitnesses saw Jesus Christ living after death, and many of them attested to it in writing. Naturalism tells us resurrection cannot happen. We can listen to self-proclaimed experts 2,000 years after the fact, or we can listen to those who saw a violation of natural laws with their own eyes and chose to die rather than denounce this claim.

We know, as certainly as we know anything in science, that [Darwinian evolution] is the process that has generated life on our own planet.

In a subtle way, this is the fallacy of reification. Dawkins is essentially claiming that “science” is an absolute authority on what is truth, and “science” shows us evolution is certain. But all the bluster in the world cannot conceal the fact that science is not some impartial arbitrator of truth claims. Science is a tool by which information is gathered about the universe in an isolated means. We cannot use science to test all circumstances at all times. For that, the scientist leans upon a belief about how the universe operates.

It may seem obvious, but science is performed by the scientist and not the other way around. This means science is subservient to beliefs and expectations. What we “know” in science is what we can observe and test. Darwinian evolution is a non-repeatable proposition. It is not science or knowledge and is, instead, a historical framework. To the naturalist, evidence A and B must be tied together by Darwinism (the framework), simply because supernatural causes are refused from the onset. When you refuse any alternative, you have only one option. This is the real reason Dawkins is so sure.

What if the greatest show on earth is not the greatest show in the universe? What if there are life forms on other planets that have evolved so far beyond our level of intelligence and creativity that we should regard them as gods, were we ever so fortunate (or unfortunate?) as to meet them?

He has previously implied that aliens could have seeded the earth for life at some point in the past.

This rather odd statement makes one wonder what Dawkins means. Perhaps he, like many other naturalists, is looking for our “space brothers” to be our salvation and to provide us with technological answers. Or perhaps he thinks aliens have visited humans in the past, which gave rise to many myths about gods. He has previously implied that aliens could have seeded the earth for life at some point in the past. Whatever he means, his faith in the power of abiogenesis and evolution is quite strong—if misguided.

Making the universe is the one thing no intelligence, however superhuman, could do, because an intelligence is complex—statistically improbable—and therefore had to emerge, by gradual degrees, from simpler beginnings: from a lifeless universe—the miracle-free zone that is physics.

Dawkins’s understanding of intelligence is—to say the least—inadequate. Intelligence is not merely complex; a shuffled deck of cards is complex, and any particular arrangement of cards has the same probability of occurring by chance. Intelligence, on the other hand, is specified or integrated complexity.

Beyond this flaw, this paragraph reveals the crux of Dawkins’s argument: God cannot exist because the universe could not generate Him. This is simply a rehashing of two common objections to God: 1) Who created God? and 2) Could God create a rock so big that He couldn’t lift it? Dawkins’s assessment, like these other two questions, commits the fallacy of bifurcation (i.e., the either/or fallacy). Either God obeys certain expectations, or He doesn’t exist, which is a deeply flawed argument. Let’s take a closer look at the structure of what Dawkins claims:

  • Natural laws govern the universe we inhabit.
  • Only things which obey those laws exist within this universe.
  • God does not obey the laws of the universe.
  • Therefore, God does not exist.

The problem with this argument is that it requires faulty assumptions to be passed off as fact. One has to assume that God can only exist if He exists solely within our universe. Considering that naturalists would admit there was a point before space-time existed (i.e., before the big bang when even the laws of physics did not operate) and even postulate other universes beyond our own, this is a peculiar claim. God, by His nature, is not confined to our universe. We are. Our finite understanding and three-dimensional perspective do not preclude the existence of a being beyond those limitations. Setting up a straw-god and knocking it down does not disprove God.

The core “proof” that Dawkins offers is simply that there are natural laws that must be obeyed at all times by all things. However, what he cannot address is why a consistent universe should exist at all and why we should expect God to be confined to it. The underlying assumption is that since Dawkins presupposes naturalism, we should too. With him, it is naturalism first—evidence later. He refuses to see the biases that blind him. He cannot fathom that natural laws are an outworking of God’s unchanging nature; he cannot understand a Being acting outside of space-time; he will not ponder the fallacies in his approach.

What’s left is a man clenching his fist and declaring that God must obey him, a God he does not want to exist. How sad that even the “defender” of faith (Karen Armstrong) could offer nothing but post-modern meaninglessness to counter his biased and patronizing assertions.


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