Hell or Heaven?


Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion (Transworld Publishers 2006).


The God Delusion


Never in the fields of science or history have so many facts owed so much to so few – and to an author’s vivid imagination.

Richard Dawkins is an interesting character. It’s extremely hard to understand how his (by his own convoluted admission) essentially meaningless belief system can generate such a tremendous amount of personal purpose and meaning, devoted entirely to convincing every single last one of us that essentially there is no purpose or meaning. Or at least not in their traditional, readily comprehensible forms – meaningless meaning will surely remain an elusive notion to most of us.

This incongruity may lead some to conclude that Dawkins is motivated by something other than a desire to liberate the world from the yoke of a God-ordained objective purpose. Then again, he does sound strangely sincere in his contention that universal atheism is a good idea. Still, whatever his motivations, writing a book is probably a healthier manifestation of the (consistently followed) atheistic mindset than would be another suicide, Soviet Union or Columbine.

Whilst Dawkins never approaches the sheer literary excellence of a C S Lewis, he isn't miles behind and can write with a refined clarity and an oftentimes skillfully amusing turn of phrase. Neither is he shy of employing some rather well-honed sleight-of-tongue techniques. So, in a sense, it's easy to appreciate how his provocative, anti-theistic speculations and re-hashings are music to the ears of the pure-bred atheist. And on those rare pages where he almost forgets how ridiculous and hideous God is, Dawkins surprisingly, and inadvertently, rivals the theist’s capacity to appreciate and be inspired by the wonder of observable, operational science and creation.

From a vocabulary standpoint, "peccadillo" and "yoctosecond" were highlights – Dictionary.com defines a yoctosecond as being “One septillionth (10-24) of a second.”

As for the highly pertinent issue of the cosmos and how it came to be, Dawkins offers various naturalistic theories. Some are fascinating; others entertaining. All are marked by excessive speculation and an inability to be verified.

Without admitting for a second that those postulating an exclusively undesigned, naturalistic cause really haven't got the foggiest idea what caused what, when or how, Dawkins writes:

"It may even be a superhuman designer – but, if so, it will most certainly not be a designer who just popped into existence, or who always existed. If (which I don't believe for a moment) our universe was designed, and a fortiori if the designer reads our thoughts and hands out omniscient advice, forgiveness and redemption, the designer himself must be the end product of some kind of cumulative escalator or crane, perhaps a version of Darwinism in another universe."

So, does Dawkins mean to say that the "designer" must be an "end product", even if the "designer" says he wasn't?

At the center of Dawkins’ life, and, needless to say, this book, lies this unyielding conviction that any being so majestically complex as to be both eternal and able to speak a universe into existence is so staggeringly improbable that such a being defies belief. His conviction on this point is so obvious and so unyielding that should Dawkins ever actually meet such a majestically complex being – who, for the sake of argument, we'll refer to as “God” – he would presumably deny this being God status; and despite God’s patient, demonstrable insistence that he is in fact God, the only God, and possesses all the Godly attributes commonly associated with the only God, would attempt – however briefly – to refute this being by calling upon his beloved, apparently impregnable “infinite regress” argument, which under these hypothetical circumstances would probably sound very much like this: "I simply don't believe. You simply cannot be immune to the regress. You're statistically improbable. You simply must have a cause. Everything has a cause. Therefore, calling yourself God is unwarranted, unhelpful and, if you don't mind my saying so, perniciously misleading. You must be the end product of some kind of cumulative escalator or crane..."

A very few may admire Dawkins’ stoicism on this hypothetical afterlife occasion, but I assume most others assembled at the time – regardless of any previously held atheistic concord – would cringe at it. Of course, this does nothing whatsoever to prove God’s existence. Yet as I picture a scoffing Dawkins, I trust it illustrates just how ludicrously disbelieving an arch-atheist can be. And, of course, far from its being the epitome of reason and objectivity, this extreme, impossibly one-track position is where all of Dawkins’ thoughts, interpretations, speculations and conclusions stem from.

(Needless to say, if the above scenario was ever realized, Dawkins wouldn't be able to conjure a single syllable, let alone four of them in one word. Having had all his materialistic hypotheses decisively invalidated by the appearing of this being, whose ineffable, awe-inducing presence causes the hearer’s spirit to oscillate with involuntarily reverence, his weak knees would knock into each other and he'd keel over quicker than a touring English cricket team.)

Unsurprisingly, given his rather extreme position, Dawkins quickly embraces the common fallacy that all "religion" and (consistently followed Christian) Truth are one and the same. Unaware as he is that the Truth and "religion" are often mutually exclusive, he is eager to offer his blanket opinion regarding any and all theists. And whilst he does, for a moment, appear to see his classification error, his subsequent inadequate response suggests he never garnered anything more than the most fleeting glimpse of it. I'm reluctant to give him any de-conversion tips, yet surely he'd be less easy to dismiss if his opinions belied something other than the most stereotypically ignorant and superficially disdainful understanding of the true, rational believer. As for his (not especially original) remarks regarding "religion" in general, and dozens of other straw man musings that follow, some believers may be surprised by how often they don't disagree with him.

As for God’s existence, and Dawkins’ "for" and "against" arguments: Regardless of cherry-picked and/or silent opponents, it is doubtless easier for someone to declare a victory in a debate they've essentially had with themselves. I wonder, for example, how Dawkins’ intellectual gigantism and supposed victory would measure against someone of the prowess and reputation of a William Lane Craig (that is, someone well respected and currently alive). This is to say nothing of Dawkins’ supposed demolition of "Arguments from Personal Experience", including his outlandishly patronizing investigation of whispering keyholes and novelty facemasks. (Most unfortunately, his “little purple man”/imaginary friend empathizings of chapter 10 actually move considerably beyond the outlandish.)

One area where I'm compelled to go into some detail is with Dawkins’ handling of "The Argument from Scripture". Whilst tactlessly neglecting to mention that scores of respected academics concur and state, for the record, that the apostle Luke is in fact an historian of the highest caliber, Dawkins has the temerity to drag in the Quirinius canard a canard which tickles and fools the ears of countless atheists and agnostics with its pathetic allegation that Luke mistakenly recorded Christ’s birth as being both before King Herod’s death in 4 BC and during a census that took place in c. AD 7. Apparently Dawkins is unaware that both modern linguistic study and an increasingly coherent, data-driven understanding of Roman census practices deems it likely that an Augustus-decreed registration took place before Herod’s death – chronologically reconciling with Luke 2:1 – distinct from the other, latter Quirinius registration of c. AD 7 – also accurately recorded by Luke in Acts 5:37 (doubtlessly for the historical benefit of us all, yet especially relevant to Luke's immediate audience, his first century contemporaries who had the actual displeasure of experiencing a number of different Roman census/registrations, and who therefore were in a position to readily understand and verify his claims, written as they were so close to the actual events).

Dawkins’ professional mishandling of reality here is surely of a standard by which that synonym for falsehood Dan Brown himself would be embarrassed. Inevitably, discerning readers, if they haven’t long since, must question how many of Dawkins' other statements contain similarly self-serving nonsense. Ironically, Dawkins also invokes Dan Brown – an analogy no doubt heartily received by those 98 percent of his audience already accustomed to applauding every such instance of B-Grade-ism.

Apart from his hankering for copy-pasting yesterday's canards and systematically omitting important information, Dawkins partakes in a couple of other closely related hobbies. Amongst these are failing to grasp the critical distinction between ideological consistency and inconsistency and his revisionist conjecture surrounding the undeniable historical Christian foundation of modern science. But the one some may find especially irritating involves his enthusiastic willingness to offer a unique perspective on absolutely any biblical text he feels like. Simply put, if you'd prefer less of the unique and more of the scholarly, look elsewhere (J P Holding’s classically robust and erudite refutation of Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation, for example). Dawkins is a smart guy, yet his pathological biases do tend to impair what may otherwise have been fair and competent exegesis.

Dawkins certainly enjoys a wide range of interests, and all are accorded a generous portion of enthusiasm. Yet most would agree that his pet topic of discussion is natural selection – and he's not just referring to proven, factual, variation-within-a-kind type natural selection, such as different length bird beaks and dog fur (resulting from an observed loss of genetic information). He means the fully unproven, factless, spoon-bending Amoeba-to-Armstrong-walks-on-the-moon version (resulting from a glaringly unobserved increase in genetic information). Of course, his modus operandi when such discussion arises is to precede the words "natural selection" with any number of flattering adjectives – as though such a procedure could ever improve the validity or truthfulness of an idea.

On pages 115 through 118 he takes a slightly different tack. As well as the usual adjectives, he describes natural selection as being the ultimate "consciousness-raiser". Now maybe studies have been conducted, and maybe they would contradict me. But until such time as I have a chance to review them, I shall remain convinced that grossly pretentious phrasing like this will forever remain grossly pretentious phrasing whether it is used once within the space of four short pages or 21 times, as the case may be in The God Delusion. Lest anyone think I’m being insensitive or harsh, we shouldn't forget that Dawkins seldom, if ever, discourages candor and evaluative stridency in his own writings. (Not that we should get our moral bearings from a Dawkins-engineered compass.) But really, far from raising anyone’s consciousness, this bloke – who according to the book’s back cover is one of the world’s "top three intellectuals" – having delivered this brazen slurry of intellectualism, succeeds in soliciting nothing but unabashed snickering. In fact, the term "consciousness-raiser" may justly become a byword for flagrant pecksniffery.

As previously alluded to, Dawkins possesses a formidable imagination – best exhibited by an unparalleled penchant for Amoeba-to-Armstrong, Microbes-to-Mozart evolution and, in more recent times, grand scale psychological analysis. Reveling in a paucity of evidence, he takes every absence of empirical data and rationale as an opportunity to produce another enticing piece of storytelling.

Facts and imagination are never so intrinsically linked as when Dawkins extols and extrapolates and extrapolates and extrapolates the pervading, dare I say “omniscient” influence of Darwinian evolution. Of course, imagination in the Dawkinsian sense is absolutely nothing at all like imagination in the Einsteinian sense of the word – that is, helpful, applied, operational, practical, scientific.

Dawkins’ attempts to account for "The Roots of Religion" and "The Roots of Morality" from a wholly Darwinian perspective are cases in point – unhelpful, impracticable, non-applicable. And whilst I can appreciate his resourcefulness, and at times even become somewhat intrigued and amused by the enthusiastic flipside of his biases – impairing as they are, yet from different angles – it is still something of a mystery to me why some people are actually inclined to accept his stories as though they were fair, reasonable and verging on being true. Even someone of my un-raised, subsistence-level consciousness knows a bucket of hogwash when it swaggers by. (Of course, to Dawkins’ continual frustration, swathes of educated people do indeed harbor a healthy, if oftentimes silent skepticism towards pseudo-scientific just-so storytelling. This would explain why he’s both a pariah to many, and prone to transparent acts of desperation involving, amongst other things, stressful italics and stressful exclamation marks as per this sentence on page 300: “… evolution is a fact!”)

Yet why are so many drawn toward the bucket? Maybe there’s a touch of the Dawkinsian in most of us, ready and willing to be seduced by the catch-cry, illusion and magnetism of self-perceived intellectual superiority.

It cannot be denied that the makers of the hogwash have done a great marketing/snow job: tirelessly employing the master canard of “God and science are opposed”, attaching themselves to the genuine scientific accomplishment of others and monopolizing words like “reason”, “free thought” and “modern science”. The strategy is brilliant, appealing almost as much to a proud buffoon unable to spell those words as it does to a proud Lucasian Professor. It’s as though we wouldn’t have remote controls, air conditioners or magnetic resonance imaging without their hogwash bucket.

Some, however, are more ready and willing, more susceptible to the catch-cry than others. I’m led to believe that Dawkins himself became infatuated with Darwin’s Origin of The Species as a fifteen-year-old. He seemed almost predisposed – not from birth, from grammar school – to believing (and to believing that “they’re really silly, and I’m really smart”).

In an early chapter of his book, Dawkins gleefully reports (presumably with his customary lack of objectivity) that a disproportionately high percentage of acclaimed scientists are atheists – and suggests (again with his customary lack of objectivity) that many scientists who are not atheists are only pretending, or are forced, to be theists. (He cites an article on the philosopher Kant from that bastion of unbiased thought, the New Humanist, to buttress his case.) However, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to Dawkins that “science”, as it has redefined itself of late, not only attracts a disproportionate percentage of the “they’re really silly, and I’m really smart” brigade, it encourages and promotes a materialistic philosophy so vigorously, so ferociously, that one might wonder how many of the atheists are only pretending and/or are forced to be. That is to say, it’s all rather circular, rather self-reinforcing. Despite an avalanche of evidence and intuitive cogency to the contrary, these “free thinking”, “scientific” types appear to wear the atheist tag as an identification badge. What would the pre-redefinement founding fathers Galileo, da Vinci and Newton think? (Oh, of course, they were only pretending to be theists.)

At the other end of the spectrum, completely removed from the consensus delusions of “freethinking sophistication” and an a priori exclusion of any majestically complex being, are Dawkins’ pet hate, the creationists. In an outrageous, intolerable contrast to Dawkins, they adhere to the compelling, inherently ingenious and decidedly less risky theory of thoughtfully confirming both the Majestically Complex Being’s existence and the validity of His communications, and evidently following His version of events even if He happens to contradict a well and loudly spoken ‘free thinker’.

Happy to call Dawkins’ bluff, and strikingly adept at pointing out his errors, the creationists are invariably described (by Dawkins) as intellectually inferior and scientifically incompetent. Presumably, someone like Jonathan Sarfati, a former national chess champion and a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry (for a thesis entitled "A Spectroscopic Study of some Chalcogenide Ring and Cage Molecules"), is an example of the kind of ignorant creationist hack that Dawkins thinks he would run rings around.

On to a different yet closely related point: Given his matter-is-all-there-is philosophy, it's extraordinarily odd that Dawkins, or any other atheist, can feel comfortable using or even recognizing such notions as good or bad, moral or immoral. Why work oneself up into a lather over things which – according to a purely materialistic outlook – are nonsensical ideas (puerile Darwinian redefinements such as the "poetry of science" and other equivocations notwithstanding)? That's not necessarily to suggest that there is anything more than matter, nor am I trying to discourage atheists from being good etc. But the question remains. Within Dawkins’ framework, terms such as “good” and “bad” aren't just different or a tad shallower than otherwise; they are rendered completely unrecognizable. In fact, it is downright weird to read Dawkins’ beliefs about such concepts. If a compassionate tear is redefined as a randomly programmed conflux of atoms, the said tear’s authenticity tends to dissipate rather rapidly. Eventually sensing his vulnerability here, instead of scurrying back to the drawing board Dawkins gives the following instruction: “Do not, for one moment, think of such Darwinizing as demeaning or reductive of the noble emotions of compassion and generosity.” I think it is this obvious inherent absurdity that the average person realizes and rejects.

Of course, that in itself doesn't mean Dawkins is wrong. But why trouble us with his thoughts, as accidental as they are? And (to do a poor job of paraphrasing C S Lewis), how on earth has Dawkins convinced himself that the random, accidental chemical movements of his brain are more reliable or “rational” than the theist’s, or the axolotl’s? Thankfully, I would agree with his claim that quiet atheists outnumber the noisy ones – and good on them for being more introverted and coherent in the handling of their abject pointlessness.

Dawkins begins chapter seven with at least as much confidence, stiff-upper-lip and unintentional humor as he finished the previous two:

“Bishop Spong, by the way, is a nice example of a liberal bishop whose beliefs are so ‘advanced’ as to be almost unrecognizable to the majority of those who call themselves Christians”  [quotation marks around ‘advanced’ are mine].

I wonder whether the former Bishop Spong, usually a welcomer of compliments, paused – perhaps only for a yoctosecond – when being patted on the head by the world’s preeminent atheist? Ergo, Mr Spong, it would seem you’re either some form of “hyper” or “advanced” Christian, or, perhaps more to the point, you’re not a Christian at all.

Then, staggeringly, in an attempt to prove that society cannot and does not coherently derive useful moral precepts from the Bible, Dawkins returns to his second favorite diversion, incompetent and unfair biblical exegesis. (I’d have almost been disappointed if he hadn’t quickly slipped in the infamous Uta-Napishtim canard for good measure.) Again, scores of professional Christian apologetic sources such as J P Holding’s Tekton Ministries spread this common genus of Dawkinsian hokey across their toast. So, I’ll leave flood canardology exposition, vassal treaties, Old and New Covenant explanation, and “Contextual Scholarship 101” to others. Instead, I’ll briefly examine the legitimacy of Dawkins’ “Moral Zeitgeist”.

In short, Dawkins believes the world (emphasis on Western world) is generally progressing to ever-greater heights of “goodness” and “moralness” without any guidance or reference whatsoever from or to any God. It is this very loosely explained phenomenon that Dawkins labels a “Moral Zeitgeist” or moral trend, fashion, spirit. Indeed, according to Dawkins, not only is the Christian Bible superfluous to this moral progression, it may actually hinder it.

Whilst admittedly unsure of the Zeitgeist’s cause (which is a common thread of the book), Dawkins is sure that “the manifest phenomenon of Zeitgeist progression is more than enough to undermine the claim that we need God in order to be good, or to decide what is good”. Of course, he continually neglects to gird “good” with quotation marks, which would, in this context, be recognition of the implicit bogusness of his use.

Certainly, to a non-German speaker, the word “Zeitgeist” is novel, flamboyant and memorable, and well fitting for an abstract entity of this magnitude and importance. However, given the Zeitgeist’s extraordinarily vague, even spurious nature, it's all too easy for it to become a hotbed for selective, opportunistic sourcing and systematic omission of important information. Besides, if the “Moral Zeitgeist" was actually discernible, and in fact actually moved in a positive direction, someone else could, with at least as much honesty and plausibility as Dawkins, ascribe a real set of factors that have influenced its movements, all of which would ultimately relate, directly or indirectly, to the biblical Moral Lawgiver. Whether the secularists admit it or not, borrowing ideas from and following the lead of the absolute moralists provides a far greater impetus for goodness than does their own warped, objectively baseless humanism. (It’s just a tragedy when all too often they try and differentiate themselves by supporting something they really shouldn’t, such as abortion.)

So the simplistic, politically correct “Moral Zeitgeist” Dawkins describes is more likely a perverse, stupendously ironic reflection of an increasingly secular Western world wanting to prove to itself that it can in fact be just as “good” as those who still believe in God-given moral absolutes. A classic “we'll show them that the place won’t fall apart if we disbelieve” scenario. The fact that everyone knows deep down that there is a Moral Lawgiver plays no small part too as people erroneously try to hedge their bets or have their cake and eat it too with some convenient, periodic niceness – with any resulting "moralness" still totally influenced by the original ultimate Lawgiver, whether they admit it or not. Of course, the Zeitgeist would eventually run out of puff, if not implode, if there ever failed to be a sufficient number of true believers providing the reverse psychological motivation and competition to the secularists.

At the same time, it is laughably euphemistic of Dawkins to describe Hitler and Stalin as mere temporary down-turns in the ever-advancing “sawtooth” of Moral Zeigeistic progression. Furthermore, it’s almost as though Dawkins has completely overlooked the Judeo-Christian influence that the Judeo-Christian foundation of the United States has had in the form of providing 60-plus years of peace and prosperity to billions of people – regardless of whether the billions realize it or resent it. (If the various Islamic sects and “freedom fighters” of the Middle East stopped blowing up everyone the people of Iraq would also experience some centuries overdue peace and prosperity, in the form of American sweat, tears, infrastructure and a fair and proper constitution mindful of the Judeo-Christian rule of law).

Indeed, how would the Moral Zeitgeist have fared, one wonders, under the directorship of the decidedly un-Judeo-Christian Nazis, Soviets and Imperial Japanese?

At the start of his concluding chapters, Dawkins, having displayed a distinct inability to reach a fair, reasonable, evidence-based conclusion by grabbing whatever he likes from a set of evidences and contorting them all in his argument’s favor, proceeds nonetheless to tell us just how good he is at reaching fair, reasonable, evidence-based conclusions. With his trademark fairness, objectivity and evidence-only approach, he rails against the systemic intolerance and harmful prejudices of “religion”. The interesting thing is, he does all this railing with enough hysterical, bigoted pungentness to nigh on curl the hair of a Klansman. It would have surely been helpful for Dawkins if his editing team had explained that blatant hypocrisy could compromise what may otherwise have been another cleverly crafted piece of utterly biased, utterly opportunistic propaganda.

Yet, and without any of Dawkins’ feistiness and fallacious generalizations, the true rational believer does of course realize that “religion” in general has been, and is, responsible for many dreadful wrongs and injustices (although none of them come close to the scale of consistently followed evolutionary atheism such as Stalinism and Mr. Adolf “Survival-of-the-Fittest” Hitler). But to throw the Truth out with the bathwater would be the single biggest mistake a person or country or planet could make.

So to conclude the subject of self-delusion: Does this blind, biased bluster-merchant named Dawkins really believe he’s a viable alternative to the Truth? Earlier in the book – and time will tell which one of us has used the following comment with the greater accuracy – Dawkins writes:

“I was irresistibly reminded of Peter Medawar’s comment on Father Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man, in the course of what is possibly the greatest negative book review of all time: ‘its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself’.”

Or, if you’d prefer George Costanza’s comedic flair: “Jerry [or Richard], just remember, it’s not a lie if you believe it!”

P.M. Doyle

February 7, 2007


To read Dr. Tas Walker's insightful, challenging open letter to the editors of the science journal Nature click here.

And to witness a concise, powerfully cogent slicing-and-dicing of Dawkins' central argument, click here.


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Hell or Heaven