Have you ever wondered why an atheist believes what he/she does? Richard Dawkins wants you to know why he is an atheist. Dawkins, the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, is arguably the world’s best-known atheist. He is not just any old atheist, however; he is atheism’s great televangelist.
This year, he has been on the road throughout the UK and the US, appearing on talk shows and news interviews. He had two hours of prime-time television on the UK’s Channel 4 network in January 2006. In these programs (entitled The Root of All Evil?), Dawkins sought to persuade his audience of the importance of his case—that not only should his audience not believe in God, but they should actively oppose any form of religion. (I reviewed these programs previously.) It was not only evangelical Christians who were critical of the programs. Writing in The Guardian, a left-leaning UK newspaper not noted for its support of creationists, Madeleine Bunting described the documentaries as “intellectually lazy polemic.”1
With the publication of his new book, The God Delusion, we now have an expanded version of his atheist manifesto. One would have hoped that he would have taken the opportunity to present a more intellectually rigorous case. Indeed, some may have been afraid of opening the book, in case the sheer weight of evidence might have destroyed their faith. For my part, I was looking forward to encountering an intellectual challenge—but sadly I was to be disappointed. The book suffers from the same intellectual laziness as the television programs.
Dawkins’ arguments, far from having intellectual clout, mostly fall back on, “The argument will be so familiar, I needn’t document it further.” Dawkins’ paucity of argument is best illustrated by his ignorance of Scripture and by his faulty logic.
Ignorance of Scripture
Although The God Delusion is ostensibly about all religions, in practice it is about Christianity—and evangelical Christianity in particular is the focus of Dawkins’ attacks. In his arguments against Christianity, he makes much use of Scripture. However, his use of Scripture is highly suspect. It appears that he has done very little research into the structure or history of the Bible. This is unsurprising, as almost every statement he makes on the Bible reveals that he has not approached it with an open mind.
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction. (p. 31)
Statements like this are loaded with prejudice. He goes on to make several more specific accusations about the character of God. Most of his accusations are unsubstantiated. Some are due to Dawkins’ own presuppositions about what is right and wrong (for example, his accusation that God is “homophobic”), some are due to his failure to have read the history leading up to particular events, and some are just plain wrong. That an intelligent man like Dawkins was so skimpy on his biblical research is incredible. One is reminded of Paul’s quotation of the Psalms in 1 Corinthians 3:20: “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.”
We need to study a few examples of this lack of research regarding Scripture.
The historical evidence that Jesus claimed any sort of divine status is minimal. (p. 92)
Some of the most striking evidence is not immediately obvious in English translation, but would have stood out like a sore thumb to contemporaries. One of the clearest of the many times Jesus claimed to be God is His use of the divine name, “I AM.”
This divine name was told to Moses, when he met with God (who appeared as a burning bush).
And God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And He said, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you’.” (Exodus 3:14)
The Hebrew word translated here as I AM is often transliterated into English as YHWH. The Name is usually translated as LORD, with four capital letters.
Jesus used the style “I am … ” very frequently, most notably in John 10.
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. (John 10:11)
Apart from the fact that God is frequently referred to as the Shepherd, the people listening to Jesus would have been very familiar with the words of Psalm 23.
The Lord is my shepherd. (Psalm 23:1)
Remembering that the word Lord is basically the same as I AM, the people listening to Jesus were in no doubt that He was claiming to be God. This is not a code, or an obscure point. Jesus knew that His words were reminiscent of Psalm 23 and so did the people. This is why in John 10:31, the people had picked up stones and were ready to stone Jesus, accusing Him of blasphemy. Jesus’ claim to be divine was obvious to them.
Notice Dawkins’ misunderstanding of the lineage of Jesus.
In any case, if Jesus really was born of a virgin, Joseph’s ancestry is irrelevant and cannot be used to fulfill, on Jesus’ behalf, the Old Testament prophecy that the Messiah should be descended from David. (p. 95)
Luke’s gospel has a genealogy in chapter 3, which most commentators agree is the descent of Jesus through Mary. Thus Jesus traces back an actual blood relationship, through Mary to David, via David’s son Nathan. Jesus also traces an adoptive relationship through his father Joseph, through the kings, to David, via David’s son Solomon (in Matthew 1). Thus both Joseph and Mary are descended from David, but Jesus’ bloodline is only through Mary—He truly is the “seed of the woman” prophesied in Genesis 3:15. However, Jesus could inherit from Joseph, even if He was not a blood descendent. Therefore, Joseph’s lineage is important, because, through Joseph, Jesus inherits the kingship. None of this is very difficult to research, and Dawkins should have done so.
Space does not permit further examination of his errors in handling Scripture, save to mention that the dreadful account of the horrific events of Judges 19 are not recorded to imply God’s approval, as Dawkins thinks. Rather, they show the depths to which God’s people are able to stoop when they reject Him. Given that history is usually written by the victors, it is noteworthy that the Bible contains unflattering accounts of the transgressions of His people. This is evidence in support of the truthfulness of Scripture.
It must also be said that Dawkins’ arguments show surprisingly poor logic. Examine this extraordinary sentence:
Although Jesus probably existed, reputable biblical scholars do not in general regard the New Testament (and obviously not the Old Testament) as a reliable record of what actually happened in history, and I shall not consider the Bible further as evidence for any kind of deity. (p. 97)
Look first at the use of the word “probably” in “Although Jesus probably existed.” Why is Dawkins doubting this fact? There is no good reason to question that Jesus existed. It is illogical to add the word “probably.”
Look next at the use of the word “reputable.” What is a “reputable biblical scholar”? The test of reputation has been left undone by Dawkins, but presumably, a “reputable biblical scholar” is one who agrees with Dawkins’ attempts to rubbish the Bible. Logic would require defining this term. Such people can be found, though whether the adjective “reputable” is appropriate for such people is a matter of opinion. We define a “reputable biblical scholar” as one who at least approaches the Bible with respect, preferably believing it to be the inspired, inerrant and authoritative word of God, from the very first verse.
Thirdly, why is it “obvious” that the Old Testament should not be regarded as reliable? He has clearly not read detailed apologetics of Scriptural inerrancy, such as that provided by Brian Edwards in his masterly book, Nothing But The Truth. That is again down to his presupposition—that evolution is true, therefore Genesis is wrong, therefore evolution is true. Merely making a statement, or using the word “obvious,” does not make a statement true! Just from these three points, we see that there is no logical reason given by Dawkins for rejecting the use of the Bible as evidence.
Articles on the use of logic are easy to find on the website. An important element in the use of logic is to recognise logical fallacies. Dawkins has committed several of these.
This fallacy occurs when your presupposition is actually what you wish to prove. Look at this example:
Creative intelligences, being evolved, necessarily arrive late in the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it. (p. 31)
The logical fallacy is breathtaking. Evolution is first assumed, in order to prove that evolution is true rather than intelligent design: “creative intelligences, being evolved … .” It is Dawkins’ presupposition that all creative intelligences have evolved. It is an idea not supported by, for example, information science.
This sort of fallacy involves attacking the opponent instead of the argument. In the UK, this is referred to as “playing the man instead of the ball”—a soccer reference, implying that the tackler has deliberately aimed to kick his opponent, rather than attempting to kick the ball.
There are several examples of this, such as a particularly nasty attack on a schoolteacher, who happens to be a creationist. Notice, on page 95, how Dawkins describes certain American educational establishments:
He moved up the hierarchy of American universities, from rock bottom at the ‘Moody Bible Institute’, through Wheaton College (a little bit higher on the scale, but still the alma mater of Billy Graham) to Princeton in the world-beating class at the top. (p. 95)
Why are the three institutions arranged hierarchically? What is the basis for Dawkins’ assessment of standards at each place? He doesn’t say, but we assume that it has to do with belief in the Bible. Why is it implied that, because they number Billy Graham among their alumni, this is a negative for Wheaton College? [Editor’s note: It is ironic that Dawkins would have a problem with Wheaton College, since it does not adhere to a plain interpretation of Genesis.]
The well-known “straw man” logical fallacy occurs when the debater misrepresents (often by oversimplifying) his or her opponent’s position for them, then argues against this invented position, rather than against the actual arguments of the opponent. An example of this is seen in the mocking tone used as he attempts to dismiss arguments based on intelligent design.
I [insert own name] am personally unable to think of any way in which [insert biological phenomenon] could have been built up step by step. Therefore it is irreducibly complex. That means it is designed.
Although Dawkins uses this argument frequently, it is a complete misrepresentation of the intelligent design position. A biological mechanism is not labeled as irreducibly complex because it is complicated and the labeler cannot think how it could have evolved. It is so labeled because it can be shown that it is not possible for it to have evolved.
It is noteworthy that Dawkins’ arguments are very inconsistent. For example, Dawkins frequently returns to a criticism of the so-called “God of the gaps” approach that uses the supernatural to explain what science cannot currently explain. Compare that attitude with his own, on page 132, where he comments on gaps in evolutionary knowledge:
A lot more work needs to be done, of course, and I’m sure it will be.
In Dawkins’ view, it is inappropriate for a scientist to appeal to the Creator to make a scientific explanation, even if that explanation is logically sound. On the other hand, Dawkins writes as though it is perfectly acceptable, when faced with dilemmas that evolution cannot explain, to suppose that an evolutionary scientist will have a naturalistic answer someday, even if the science is consistent with a biblical approach. Such double standards allow Dawkins to self-justify poor logic, while refusing to acknowledge the strength of those who oppose him.
Christians have nothing to fear from The God Delusion. Far from being a reasoned argument for atheism, it is a rant. It would be appropriate for Christians to be aware of the principal arguments of the book, and how they are countered. Maybe one day an atheistic book will emerge that has more intellectual rigour, but even an intellectually rigorous apology for atheism would not concern us for God is a God of wisdom and reason. Time and again we find that a belief in the inerrancy of Scripture is not just a doctrinal statement, it is an intellectually satisfying position to take. But Dawkins’ new book is weak, even by atheist standards. We note that Dawkins is now planning to send atheist material to government schools in the UK. That might be a good opportunity for British school pupils to exercise their critical thinking!