The best short summary and discussion that I have seen of Richard Dawkins’ view that science has ‘eliminated’ God is that of Alister McGrath in an article published the journal Science and Christian Belief.
Although published in 2005, and not interacting directly with Dawkins’ The God Delusion, the article nevertheless takes account of the opinions of Dawkins as they have developed from 1977 (The Selfish Gene) onwards.
McGrath expresses admiration for Dawkins’ scientific writing, but notes that when he touches on the subject of God, evidence-based reasoning seems to have been left behind, to be replaced by over-simplification and, not infrequently, misrepresentation.
Dawkins’ central assertion seems to be that science and scientific method lead inevitably to atheism. Religious people are, consequently, characterised as either stupid or dishonest (or both).
Dawkins’ views on this subject may be summarised as follows:-
1. A Darwinian world-view makes belief in God redundant
Certainly, says Dawkins, the universe seems to have many signs of design, but we now know that these are illusary. In the Darwinian account, ‘the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.’ The scientific world-view offers a process (natural selection), a mechanism (Mendelian inheritance) and a timescale (billions, rather than thousands, of years) by which complex life-forms can emerge and develop through entirely impersonal means. There is no need for the God-hypothesis.
It is not at all clear, however, that atheism is required or even suggested by such scientific considerations. The fact is that the scientific method itself is incapable of adjudicating in this debate. T.H. Huxley (‘Darwin’s Bulldog’) recognised this many years ago when he spoke of the necessity of the ‘agnosticism’ towards theology (and ‘anti-theology’) from a scientific perspective. More recently, Stephen Jay Gould asserted that because science has to work within its self-imposed naturalistic categories, it ‘simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists.’
The logical stance of science towards the question of God is, therefore, not atheism, but agnosticism.
2. Religious faith is irrational and represent a retreat from the scientific method
For Dawkins, faith ‘means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence’. But this is an idioscyncratic definition. It would be difficult to find a single religious thinker who would recognise such a definition. As an example of how a typical Christian theologian might define faith, McGrath turns to W.H. Griffith-Thomas (1861-1924)@-
[Faith] affects the whole of man’s nature. It commences with the conviction of the mind based on adequate evidence; it continues in the confidence of the heart or emotions based on conviction, and it is crowned in the consent of the will, by means of which the conviction and confidence are expressed in conduct.
Dawkins, of course, having set up his straw man, has little trouble in demolishing it. Faith, he says, may be acceptable in a small child, but is contemptible in an adult. Grown-ups do not believe, he says, in Father Christmas or the Tooth Fairy, and neither should they believe in God. But the analogy does not work. After all, it is precisely as adults that many people come to faith in God, whereas no-one comes to believe in Father Christmas or the Tooth Fairy after childhood.
3. Belief in God remains widespread due to the means of its propagation, rather than due to the coherence of its arguments
Given the persistence of (irrational) religious belief in a (rational) scientific age, a mechanism is needed for its propagation. Dawkins proposes a replicator called the ‘meme’. Just as physical characteristics are replicated by means of ‘genes’, so social, intellectual and religious ideas are replicated by such ‘memes’. Memes may be regarded as ‘viruses of the mind’.
In response to this proposal: (a) there is no evidence that suggests that cultural evolution is according to Darwinian processes; (b) there is no observational evidence for ‘memes’ whatsoever; (c) the existence of ‘memes’ rests on an unsustainable analogy with ‘genes’; and (d) cultural evolution can be explained in other, and more effective, ways.
Whereas genes and there transmission patterns are subject to empirical observation and study, the concept of the ‘meme’ remains an unobservable, hypothetical, construct that has no explanatory power.
4. Religion offers an impoverished view of the world
Dawkins says that in contrast to the lofty scientific vision, ‘the universe presented by organized religions is a poky little medieval universe, and extremely limited.’ But the medieval view of the universe reflected the science of its day, which was based on an Aristotelian world-view. The religious people were, are worst, guilty of accepting the science of the time without undue question (something that Dawkins should applaud). At best, they transcended that scientific world-view by their belief in the God of the Bible, affirming that ‘the heavens declare the glory of God’ (Psa 19:1). The Christian has no less awe than the atheist when each contemplates the wonders of the natural world. Indeed, the history of science demonstrates that it was precisely those who believed in a Creator who took such great delight in discovering the wonders of the creation; it was because religious people believed in a Law-giver that they looked for, and found, law in the natural world. It is simply not the case to say that the religious person is passive in the face of mystery, whereas the scientific person strives to investigate, to discover, and to understand.
5. Religion leads to evil, and its elimination is therefore desirable
Everyone would agree that some religious people are extremely wicked. But this is not the same thing as asserting – as Dawkins asserts – that religion leads to evil. After all, some atheists do some very nasty things. Indeed, when atheism has taken hold of public life, as in Soviet Communism, the sum total of human misery and oppression has been horrendous. The victims of atheistic Communism numbers at between 85 and 100 million – far more than those of Nazism. One of the greatest ironies of the 20th century was that
many of the most deplorable acts of murder, intolerance and repression of that century were carried out by those who thought that religion was murderous, intolerant and repressive – and thus sought to remove it from the face of the planet as a humanitarian act.
This is not to say that there are not many decent and kind atheists in the world. Of course there are. But it is to say that ‘atheism = good behaviour’/’religion = bad behaviour’ is far too simplistic, and contrary to the evidence. And the Christ faith offers an explanation for human evil (sin), for the degree of goodness found in religious and irreligious people alike (common grace), and for the fact that we can reliably distinguish between moral good and moral evil in the first place (the moral nature of God). Dawkins, on the other hand, candidly acknowledges that science offers no basis for morality.
We ought to treat empirical investigation of the question ‘Is religion bad for you?’ with some caution. It all depends on what religion you are talking about, and what you mean by, and how you measure, the good and the bad. But it is worth noting that a 2001 survey of 100 evidence-based studies disclosed that:-
- 79 reported at least one positive correlation between religious involvement and well-being;
- 13 found no meaningful association between religion and well-being;
- 7 found mixed or complex associations between religion and well-being;
- 1 found a negative association between religion and well-being.
The fact that religion makes people feel better or healthier does not prove that it is true. But it does raise a serious question about Dawkins’ assertion that religion is ‘the root of all evil’.
Based on ‘Has Science eliminated God? – Richard Dawkins and the Meaning of Life’. Science and Christian Belief, 17, 115-135.