Can the Arguments of the “New Atheists” be made Stronger?

Jeff Lowder notes Ed Feser’s critique of the “New Atheists” and indicates that his criticisms are cogent, perhaps fatal. Now, I do not read much of Ed Feser’s stuff, not even all of the two tirades he wrote about me—which outbursts made my day both times. However, I have read Alistair McGrath’s critiques of Dawkins and my assessment of his critique is below. This is from my Essay “Atheism: Twilight or Dawn” published in the book The Future of Atheism, Robert B. Stewart, editor Fortress Press, Minneapolis (2008). It was originally presented at the 2007 Greer-Heard Conference “The Future of Atheism” at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Here I argue that McGrath’s critiques may succeed against the rather extreme or simplistic form of such arguments, but that they can be made stronger and harder to refute:

In various writings, Prof. McGrath does respond in detail to one prominent defender of atheism, Richard Dawkins, so let us turn to his response to Dawkins’ attack. McGrath identifies four charges made by Dawkins against religion:

1. A Darwinian worldview makes belief in God unnecessary or impossible…

2. Religion makes assertions which are grounded in faith, which represents a retreat from a rigorous, evidence-based concern for the truth. For Dawkins, truth is grounded in explicit proof; any form of obscurantism or mysticism grounded in faith is to be opposed vigorously.

3. Religion offers an impoverished and attenuated vision of the world…In contrast, science offers a bold and brilliant vision of the universe as grand, beautiful, and awe-inspiring…

4. Religion leads to evil…(McGrath 2004a , p. 2).

At one time, particularly in the heyday of natural theology in the 18th and early 19th centuries, there was a broad consensus that divine design was apparent in the natural world. In the words of Hume’s Cleanthes:

The curious adapting of means to ends, throughout all nature, resembles exactly, though it much exceeds, the productions of human contrivance; of human designs, thought, wisdom, and intelligence. Since, therefore, the effects resemble each other, we are led to infer, by all the rules of analogy, that the causes also resemble; and that the Author of Nature is somewhat similar to the mind of man; though possessed of much larger faculties…(Hume, pp. 203-204).

In books like The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable, Dawkins argues that the appearance of design, the “curious adapting of means to ends” in organic nature has now received a naturalistic explanation, namely, natural selection. Natural selection, the “blind watchmaker,” operates when natural variability endows some organic variants with traits that enhance their odds of survival and reproduction vis-à-vis competitors, and then, since such advantageous traits are heritable, leads to the accumulation and improvement of adaptations in successive populations. This process operating across geological time, says Dawkins, accounts for the appearance of design in living things, and so the blind watchmaker displaces the divine watchmaker (see Dawkins, 1986).

McGrath concedes that this argument has force, but he thinks that Dawkins takes it much too far:

If Dawkins is right, it follows that there is no need to believe in God to offer a scientific explanation of the world. Some might draw the conclusion that Darwinism encouraged agnosticism, while leaving the door wide open for a Christian or atheist reading of things—in other words, permitting them, but not necessitating them. But Dawkins is not going to leave things there; for Dawkins, Darwin impels us to atheism. (McGrath, 2004a, p. 4).

McGrath challenges the assumption, which he attributes to Dawkins, that the scientific method is capable of adjudicating the God-hypothesis. He argues:

The scientific method is incapable of delivering a decisive adjudication of the God question. Those who believe that it proves or disproves the existence of God press that method beyond its legitimate limits, and run the risk of abusing or discrediting it. Some distinguished biologists…argue that the natural sciences create a positive presumption of faith; others…that they have a negative implications for theistic belief. But they prove nothing, either way. If the God-question is to be settled, it must be settled on other grounds (McGrath, 2004a, p. 4).

Again we see the idea of proof doing the heavy lifting in McGrath’s argument, and we need to note that “proof,” if too strictly construed, is too great an onus for the methods of the natural sciences to bear. However, if “proof” means a decisive empirical test then, if scripture is any guide, a scientific test, or something very much like one, could indeed adjudicate the “God question.” I Kings, Chapter 18 provides as good an example of a crucial experiment as one could wish: Elijah challenged the priests of Ba’al to a contest. They would erect an altar to Ba’al and he one to Jehovah. The priests of Ba’al would implore their god to send fire to consume their sacrifice, and Elijah would call upon Jehovah to do likewise. According to the story, the fire fell from heaven consuming Elijah’s sacrifice, Jehovah was vindicated as the true god, and Elijah led the people in a celebratory massacre of the priests of Ba’al. Whatever one’s opinion of the historicity of this narrative, it certainly shows that, in principle at any rate, there could be a decisive empirical test of religious claims. Had fire instead consumed the sacrifice to Ba’al this would have been strong confirmation of the Ba’al hypothesis and strong disconfirmation of the Jehovah hypothesis.

Even if we set aside such histrionic scenarios as the story in I Kings, it still certainly seems that the findings of science could offer strong evidence confirming or disconfirming hypotheses postulating creators or designers. For instance, if, contrary to fact, the fossil record revealed no unambiguous examples of transitional fossils between higher taxa—birds and reptiles, say–this would indeed support a hypothesis postulating piecemeal creation, i.e., that over geological time there had been a series of creation-events. On the other hand, since there are indisputable instances of transitional fossils between higher taxa (see Isaak, pp. 113-128), this fact counts heavily against any hypotheses of intermittent special creation-events. That is, any hypothesis that rejects macroevolutionary explanations and invokes the occasional direct creative activity of a Creator or Designer to account for the appearance of new higher taxa will be seriously undermined by the presence of undeniable instances of transitional fossils.

Clearly, then, the results of science can have considerable bearing on hypotheses postulating deities, designers, and creators. What about Dawkins’ specific claim, as stated by McGrath, that Darwinism “impels us to atheism?” If “impels us to atheism” is taken to mean “proves that there is no God,” or “makes atheism the only rational option,” then Darwinism does not impel us to atheism. However, Dawkins is entirely correct that the burgeoning explanatory success of Darwinian and other naturalistic explanations does threaten at least some theistic hypotheses.

The real danger that science poses for theism is not that it can “disprove” God’s existence, but that as science progresses, God seemingly becomes increasingly irrelevant and his role in the universe is diminished. Scientific explanations inevitably end with an explanans that, for the time being at least, must be treated as a brute fact. Therefore, there is always the option of inviting God to take over the explanatory labor left unfinished by science. One problem with this “God of the gaps” option, however, is that it tends to relegate God to an ever more marginal or distant role, one more appropriate for a deistic rather than a theistic Creator.

To be of any religious interest a deity has to have something important to do; there has to be a domain for divine activity in the world that advancing science cannot seal off, marginalize, or supplant with naturalistic explanations. “Intelligent design” (ID) theorists such as Michael Behe and William Dembski owe their fame to their claim, backed by clever but controversial arguments, to have identified such distinct domains for direct, intelligent, creative input into the natural world (Behe, 1996; Dembski, 1998). Whatever one thinks of the efforts of the ID theorists (I regard them as total failures; see Miller, 1999; Pennock, 1999; Eldredge, 2000; Pennock, ed., 2001; Shanks, 2004; Young and Edis, 2004; Perakh, 2004; Kitcher, 2007; Isaak, 2007; and, of course, many entries in the archive), such theories are clearly a response to precisely the kind of threat that Dawkins articulates.

The upshot is that McGrath’s criticism of Dawkins’ first charge has force only if Dawkins is making an unreasonably strong claim of disproof. But if Dawkins’ is making a weaker claim–perhaps something akin to Prof. Dennett’s argument that Darwinism is “universal acid,” i.e., that Darwinian explanations tend over time to drive all rival explanations from the field (Dennett, 1995)—then, McGrath’s criticism fails. Further, Dawkins correctly points out that as the realm of naturalistic explanation broadens gaps for God narrow.

What about Dawkins’ second charge, that, though they are held with great tenacity and often asserted vehemently, religious beliefs are based merely upon faith and not upon evidence? McGrath correctly points out that a dichotomy between faith and evidence is grossly simplistic (McGrath, 2004a, p. 6). Faith need not be blind and science is not always quite as evidence-driven as simple stereotypes imply.

Here again, though, Dawkins’ argument is refuted only in an extremely simplistic form. Perhaps the gravamen of Dawkins’ contention can be re-stated as the charge that there is a great disparity between the assurance with which major religious claims are generally asserted and the actual epistemic credentials of those claims. Creedal claims are often presented as so manifestly true that those who willfully reject them are regarded as deserving of temporal or eternal punishment, or perhaps as invincibly ignorant. In this case we might expect that those creedal propositions are as well established, as irrefragable and apodictically certain as claims can be. Yet this seems not to be the case. Every such set of tenets is doubted by very many ostensibly rational, intelligent, and well-informed people. This alone is reason to think that the strength of the claims of religion is often overblown. Further, if creedal claims are manifestly true, it must be the case that each of the propositions constituting those claims is (a) clear, coherent, internally consistent, and compatible with other creedal claims, (b) either obviously true or established beyond a reasonable doubt, and (c) such that if established by reasons, those reasons should be readily apparent to any serious inquirer, since if the reasons for believing a proposition are too obscure, abstruse, or arcane, this could be a legitimate reason for not accepting it. However, it is highly doubtful that conditions a, b, and c are met with respect to the creedal claims of any religion.

So, however rhetorically overblown and simplistic Dawkins’s statements might be, at their core they make a legitimate complaint, namely, that their adherents often represent the creedal claims of religion as possessing a far greater degree of certainty or obviousness than is warranted. When this happens, the consequences are bad. Claiming more for your beliefs than is their due not only debases rationality, but is conducive to intolerance, fanaticism, and obscurantism.

Dawkins’ third charge is that religion diminishes our appreciation for the richness, mystery, majesty, and beauty of the universe, and instead gives us a diminished and impoverished view of reality. McGrath responds…”A Christian reading of the world denies nothing of what the natural sciences tell us…(2004a, p. 12).” Therefore, whatever majesties the atheist finds in the natural world may be equally if not more deeply appreciated by the theist. Well, this may be an apt answer for those who adhere to a Christian “reading” of the world like Professor McGrath’s. However, I fear that the Christian “reading” of an Oxford don might bear little relationship to that which prevails, in, say, Pine Bluff, Arkansas. What about those, and they number in the many millions, who adhere to a strict, literal, inerrantist view of scripture? “God says it, I believe it, and that settles it” as one bumper sticker puts it. The fundamentalist’s universe is indeed quite small. For one thing, it is less than 10,000 years old. Needless to say, this crowds the events of prehistory, resulting, for instance, in the dinosaurs being pushed onto the ark with Noah (See Whitcomb and Morris, 1961; Gish, 1992). Further, it is a world that is ending quite soon. No exact date is given for the events of the “end time,” such as the “rapture,” but clearly they are at most just a few years away.

Now, Prof. McGrath may think that I mention such views to ridicule them or to embarrass sophisticated believers such as himself, but that is not my intent at all. We Americans must face the fact that multiple millions of our fellow citizens are Christian fundamentalists. This is simply a demographic fact. Further, over the last few decades fundamentalist cadres have been quite aggressive in seeking political power and cultural clout. Again, this is simply a fact. We are therefore fully justified in being interested in what fundamentalists believe, i.e., in the contents of their little universe. As a critique of the constricted fundamentalist worldview, if not of religion in general, Dawkins’ charge has relevance and significance.

Finally, McGrath considers Dawkins’ accusation that religion is a bad thing that has led to much evil and suffering. McGrath replies (2004a, pp. 14-16) that Dawkins again indulges in overblown rhetoric, that he carefully selects certain notorious episodes and treats them as typical rather than aberrant, that he ignores the facts mentioned earlier about the suffering inflicted by atheists, and that he overlooks the evidence of benefits of religion.

Is it fair for a critic such as Dawkins to adduce the evils committed in the name of religion? Yes, because of the claims that religion makes for itself. The Christian Church, according to its own account, was charged by its Founder to be the Light of the World and the holder of the keys to the Kingdom of God. The Church, again as it presents itself, is the Bride of Christ, and as such its behavior is to be holy and chaste. When so much is expected of an institution, or an individual, moral lapses are going to stand out with particular vividness. This is inevitable. Consider the case of the former high public official, the author of several books promoting personal virtue, and the self-appointed spokesman for public morality, who was discovered to be a compulsive gambler who had lost several million dollars. When such things happen it is not at all unfair to hold the guilty individuals or institutions up to their own standards. Defenders of those individuals or institutions who respond by directing a tu quoque at critics are missing the point. It cannot be enough to be no worse than others when you are supposed to be setting the standard. If that is what you settle for, then you have relinquished any claim to moral authority.

In all fairness, of course, no human institution could exist for nearly 2000 years without numerous lapses, abuses, and excesses having been committed in its name. But there are evils that are woven into the very fabric of Christian belief and practice, so that it is hard to imagine Christianity ever changing so much as to be entirely free of them. For instance, James Carroll, a Roman Catholic layman, in his book Constantine’s Sword recounts the Church’s two thousand year war against Judaism. Of all the Church’s sins, this one is the most bizarre. After all, Jesus was a Jew–born of a Jewish woman, he worshiped in the Temple and observed Jewish holidays. Two of the four Gospels provide lengthy genealogies to establish Jesus’s descent from King David. In fact, Christianity began as a reform movement within Judaism. Yet by the late first century the Church was largely gentile, and these gentile Christians saw the Jews as perversely stiff-necked in their rejection of Christ. The Gospels themselves begin the demonization of the Jews. John 8:44 literally calls Jews the children of the devil because they will not believe in Jesus. Matthew 27:25 depicts the Jews as saying that the blame for Jesus’s crucifixion should fall on them and their children. Thus did the inflammatory charge of deicide–the murder of God–become Christians’ excuse for the persecution of the Jews.

Carroll carefully shows how the Church “fathers,” the most important theologians of the early Church, vilified the Jews, sometimes in the crudest terms. For instance, St. John Chrysostom, Bishop of Antioch in the early fifth century, said “…a place where a whore stands on display is a whorehouse. What is more, the synagogue is not only a whorehouse and a theater; it is also a den of thieves and a haunt of wild animals…(quoted in Carroll, p. 213).” Small wonder that after such calumny riots broke out against the Jews and the great synagogue at Antioch was demolished. St. Augustine, the most influential of the Church “fathers,” argued that Jews should not be killed, because, he said, their own scriptures testify to the truth of Christianity. Yet, they should be scattered throughout the earth, to live as exiles everywhere, and to have a home nowhere. In the 13th Century, St. Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the preeminent philosopher of the Christian Church, wrote the Summa Contra Gentiles, a compendium of Christian apologetic. His aim was to make the case for Christianity rationally compelling, and therefore to deny Jews any excuse for their unbelief. Henceforth, Aquinas held, their rejection of Christianity must be seen not as “invincible ignorance,” but as willful defiance of the truth. At the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther expressed sympathy for the Jews, but he erupted into rabid denunciation when they proved no more receptive to Lutheranism than to Catholicism. Here is one of his gems: “Know, my dear Christian, and do not doubt that next to the devil you have no enemy more cruel, more venomous and virulent, than a true Jew (quoted in Carroll, p. 368).” Carroll leaves no doubt that the hatred sown by such diatribes was abundantly harvested at Auschwitz.

The upshot is that critics such as Dawkins do not have the burden of proving that religion is always bad, or even that it is, on balance, more often bad than good. It is sufficient to show that religion is human, all too human. You ought not to be regarded as the Light of the World when even your most eloquent defenders can say only that your record is not quite as bad as that of the greatest monsters or most pernicious ideologies of history.

So, how effective is McGrath’s critique of Dawkins? Well, he correctly notes the instances where Dawkins indulges in overstatement and oversimplification. Professional philosophers and other scholars whose vocation requires them to put a premium on precisely stated and rigorously argued claims often cringe when less careful controversialists enter the fray, firing off rhetorical broadsides, and reducing complex issues to slogans and sound-bytes. Because the issue evokes so much passion, popular apologists on both sides of the “God question” all too often offer overheated polemic and propaganda instead of logical argument. For instance, philosopher John Beversluis in his book C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion (2007) carefully documents how the author of such classics of popular Christian apologetics as Mere Christianity often employs straw men to characterize opponents and makes claims far too large for his evidence. Unsurprisingly, authors of popular atheist apologetics often do likewise. However, once the overstatement is trimmed back, we have seen some serious problems lurking in the neighborhood of Dawkins’ charges. I have argued that McGrath’s critique of Dawkins is inadequate to address these deep problems that may be articulated by qualifying, refining, or restricting Dawkins’ accusations.


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