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Richard Dawkins’ Philosophical Offenses: A Review of “Outgrowing God”

December 4, 2019


Paleontologist Neil Shuber writes of Richard Dawkins’s recent book Outgrowing God:

With wit, logic, and his characteristic flair for expressing complex ideas with uncanny clarity, Richard Dawkins separates myth from reality in Outgrowing God. His book is more than a beginners’ guide to atheism: it is a primer that liberates us to see and explore the beauty of the Universe free of fables and fantasies.

It is a shame—as Mark Twain would say—that Dr. Shuber did not take the time to read Dawkins’ book before commenting on it. The right and proper thing to do before affording an endorsement is to experience two or three paragraphs. I see no evidence that Dr. Shuber accomplished this and wonder if his endorsement might have been premature.

Outgrowing God offers no new arguments for atheism but presents much of Dawkins’ tired procession of antireligious canards in a simplified format more suitable for adolescent consumption, specifically—and as the promotional material points out—for teenagers. This suggests that Dawkins may finally have engaged in a moment of critical self-reflection. Yippee. Only, rather than refining his approach according to the critiques of contemporary philosophers, theologians, and scientists, he moves his arguments away from the academically trained to younger, more susceptible minds. The man couldn’t compete in the major leagues and he knows it. Thus, he’s decided to press his luck with the little ones.

Not irrelevantly, I’ve proposed to professors of logic—particularly in Catholic schools—how a very illuminating and instructive curriculum could be composed using only the texts of New Atheist thinkers such as Dawkins. They are a museum of fallacies, invalid inference-making, and rhetorical sophistry. In this connection, I’d have you imagine what it is to think in consistent channels, to engage in sound argument, objective, even-handed analysis, etc. Picture that in your mind. Have you got it? Good. Because you now possess the epitome portrait of everything Outgrowing God—and virtually all the New Atheist literature before it—is not.

Dawkins launches his critique of religion with an unapologetic abuse of the genetic fallacy—essentially, if you were born somewhere aside Christian Ohio, you would be a Muslim or a Hindu or whatever. Or, in his words, “I had already worked out when I was about nine that if I’d been born to Viking parents I’d firmly believe in Odin and Thor.” And surely that may be true, just as if I were born in Ancient Greece, I may have thought Earth is stationary or worshipped Zeus. But none of this tells whether my beliefs are fundamentally in error. Perhaps I only believe the Earth orbits the sun because I was born in the modern age—maybe I have no other justification than that. But am I wrong?

The other truly lamentable thing about this is Dawkins has never seemed to want to consider whether a decision he reached when he was nine years old was a good one. Most people—even many religious people, it must be admitted—regularly question and re-analyze beliefs arrived at during an earlier period of life. But not Dawkins; no. Dawkins, apparently, discovered everything he needed to know about God and religion in the second grade.

Following his introductory critique, Dawkins compares belief in the Abrahamic God to unicorns, fairies, and Santa Claus—because nobody would have seen that coming. The problem with this comparison—as tedious as it is to keep explaining the same thing again and again—is most people reject, for example, Santa Claus, not because there is an absence of evidence for him, but because there is positive evidence against. For if (if!) Santa existed, we’d expect to see him coming down chimneys or find his workshop, populated with elves and surrounded by candy canes. Because of what we’d expect vs. what we experience, this lack of evidence counts positively against Santa’s existence. But this is disanalogous—and therefore question-begging—when discussing God, who is not a being within the universe, but subsistent being itself. In other words, the sort of evidence we ought to expect if there exists a transcendent, immaterial, and intelligent creator is of a different category altogether, and might include such things, as philosophers of religion have argued, as the creation of physical reality from no prior material substrate; a stable, orderly, and intelligible cosmos; conscious and morally reflective beings; religious experiences; and so on. In short, everything we currently do experience, and more.

But what would a Dawkins book be without showcasing his beloved pet—the ultimate conversation-ender when debating religious belief and, according to Aeromagazine, a deceptively simple point “which is, in fact, unanswerable”: Who caused God?

Dawkins’ cherished objection has become rather arthritic over the decades, but still the old dog clings to life and can produce the occasional sad howl. Naturally, versions of “Who caused God?” can be found throughout much of Dawkins’ professional work—specifically, on pg. 157 of Dawkins’ previous book The God Delusion (an objection he reiterates in Outgrowing God when he says, “designers need an explanation, just as watches do”):

Step 1. One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect has been to explain how the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arises.

Step 2. The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself.

Step 3. The temptation is a false one because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer.

Step 4. The most ingenious and powerful explanation is Darwinian evolution by natural selection.

Step 5. We don’t have an equivalent explanation for physics.

Step  6. We should not give up the hope of a better explanation arising in physics, something as powerful as Darwinism is for biology.

Conclusion: Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist.

Here, Dawkins has furnished an argument that is—formally speaking—invalid. As it happens, there are currently zero known laws of logic that would permit drawing such a conclusion from the premises given. And so, we have learned what a non sequitur is, and seen a prized example of it, because of Dawkins. As such, there is pedagogical value in Dawkins’ work yet. Just as we learn from Venezuela how not to run an economy, we learn from Dawkins how not to think about religion. Bad examples, destructive as they are, can be useful in other ways.

For those interested, Dawkins’ argument, when and if granting the premises, would entail the conclusion that a person ought not infer God’s existence from the appearance of design in the biological realm—and that’s all. But perhaps a person believes in God for other reasons; maybe because of the radical contingency of space-time reality or fine-tuning (which Dawkins rejects in the book, but not adequately) or whatever. The point being, Dawkins’ argument is not only weak, but embarrassingly inept. It is altogether a magnificent mess. And not just one of the premises are mistaken.

As pointed out by Dr. William Lane Craig in previous reviews of Dawkins’ work, an explanation can be perfectly adequate (and often is) even when that explanation has itself a further explanation or is expected to. The temperature in my room is 62 degrees; the best explanation for this is because the air conditioner is on, and this remains the best explanation no matter how the air conditioner got there. So far as I know, the air conditioner came with the house. It doesn’t matter. The point is this: I don’t need to first explain the explanation to have a good explanation.

Imagine the level of preposterous difficulty this position would lay upon scientists if no explanation were accepted if and whenever it brought along a larger or more complex set of questions. Under Dawkins’ Rule, science and philosophy would strike a sudden and overwhelming impasse, since a person would be under the impossible burden of needing to explain the explanation before accepting any explanation, creating a vicious and potentially infinite regress.

All that said, Dawkins’ “Who caused God?” objection betrays an even more fundamentally babyish understanding of philosophy and theology. He appears to be unaware of the historic (and specifically Catholic) tradition of classical theism, arguing God to be absolutely simple, unchanging, and noncomposite—not to mention eternal and necessary. In philosophical speak, God is the infinite and unrestricted act of existence in and through which all finite, restricted essences have their being and move about. To compare God to Zeus or some complex, cosmic designer is to commit a crude category error, and to ask what caused an uncaused, necessary being is, in all honesty, a stupid question. A person may object to the philosophical arguments that provoke such a conclusion, but that is something that needs to be engaged with the arguments themselves—from Aristotle to Aquinas, Leibniz to Lonergan, and so on—rather than question-begging against them or missing the point entirely. Dawkins simply has no idea what he’s talking about, let alone objecting to. He can’t even manage to raise his objections to the level of being well-formulated, nor can he apparently be bothered to attempt the paltriest understanding of what the positions he wishes to criticize are in any robust and sophisticated form. He repeatedly explodes the slightest of strawmen and ignores any and all rigorous tradition of natural theology.

There are other fallacies in Dawkins’ collection that merit a general, passing acknowledgment. We are treated, among others, to the fallacy of Bulverism, coined originally by C.S. Lewis—that is, of beginning to explain why something is wrong without first showing that it is wrong—when Dawkins attempts to explain the evolution of religious belief (Chapter 11); the fallacies of special pleading and question-begging with respect to indoctrination of children (Chapter 1); confusing moral epistemology with moral ontology (Chapter 5), another category mistake; strawmanning Christian and Biblical teaching (Chapter 4); and finally (for this article, anyway), Dawkins forsakes his share of the burden of proof when he says, “Strictly speaking, it is impossible to prove something does not exist” (Chapter 1). But this too is incorrect: To prove something doesn’t exist, a person need only demonstrate the logical incoherence of this or that concept. We cannot prove there are no aliens in space, for example. But we can know for certain that there are no “colorless green aliens” in space, because that is a contradiction. If God is a contradiction, then God does not exist, and atheists have long attempted—to no ultimate avail, and certainly not in Dawkins’ latest work—to show this.