Richard Dawkins, the author of The Selfish Gene, has gained even more public prestige since his latest book, The God Delusion, became a best seller worldwide. This book has become the most popular tract on atheism in recent times. However, its popularity is due neither to its originality, nor its academic quality, but rather to the nature of its rhetoric. The God Delusion is written in a passionate, provocative, merciless and often bullying voice. The kind of writing he adopts creates fury in the hearts of many religious people and a joy among many atheists; and from this ability to arouse readers’ emotions comes the popularity of the book, at the cost of furthering division and hatred between believers and non-believers.
Despite the media’s excitement, Dawkins’ claims are mostly repetition of very old arguments against religion and God’s existence, put in a different context, and supported with different examples. Many articles and books have been published to refute Dawkins’ opinions, but most of them focus merely on defending the author’s own religion or sect of religion. I would like to take a different approach: pass Dawkins’s claims through the test of reason without invoking any religious references, and see how they withstand critical scrutiny.
Dawkins’ claims in the book can be reduced to two thesis statements.
1. Religion is evil.
2.“There almost certainly is no God” (p. 137).
The logical reasoning he uses to prove his first thesis statement is poor and biased. He points to some Christian fanatics who burn down abortion clinics and concludes that Christianity is evil because it inspires individuals to perform such despicable acts of violence. According to this same faulty logic, Islam is evil because some terrorists and suicide attackers who claim to be Muslims participated in the September 11 attacks. To Dawkins, it does not matter if there are billions of well-behaved Christians and Muslims who are motivated by religion to become better human beings. By this logic, if billions of people drink water from the same water source for centuries and in that time just a few among them fall ill, then the source of illness must be the water. Had Dawkins approached the matter like a true scientist and carefully examined the scientific studies on violence, he would have learned that violence has almost nothing to do with faith, and that terrorists are rarely motivated by religious beliefs, but rather by political and nationalistic impulses. One such study was conducted by Professor Robert Pape of the University of Chicago. Pape has compiled the most comprehensive data on suicide bombings and attacks around the globe over the past twenty years. He published his broad study, which analyzed the root causes of such attacks, in a book called Dying to Win and summarized his findings as follows: “The data show that there is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any one of the world’s religions. In fact the leading instigators of suicide attacks are the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a Marxist-Leninist group whose members are from Hindu families but who are adamantly opposed to religion. … Rather, what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.”1
While scientific studies such as Pape’s prove that a it is a specific set of factors unconnected with religion that leads to violence, it is peculiar to see Dawkins make the unjustified claim that “Only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness” (p. 343).
The fact that the greatest atrocities in human history have been committed by non-religious leaders such as Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot, or by non-religious groups like the Tamil Tigers, does not alter his conviction. In claiming that “. . . atheists may do evil things but they don’t do evil things in the name of atheism” (p. 315), Dawkins may persuade himself of this double standard, but, the true, logical conclusion regarding evil is an obvious one. If non-religious people do as much evil as (if not more than) religious people, then we cannot blame religion for the actions of a few evil-doers who happen to be, or claim to be religious, especially if billions of other people subscribing to the same religion condemn these acts.
This much suffices to demonstrate the fallacy of his first thesis statement and we now move to his next claim which is about the existence of God.
Definition of God
To be consistent in discussion we should adhere to a common definition. The concept of God used in this article is not the perception of God according to any particular religion. It is God as defined by Dawkins himself. Dawkins defines God as “a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it” (p.52). Although the word “superhuman” is vague and undefined, I accept the rest of the definition as the basis for our discussion.
Dawkins starts with an attempt to reduce the question of the existence of God to a scientific problem and to show that the probability of God’s existence is far less than fifty percent.
What is the probability of God’s existence?
Can we prove God’s existence or non-existence by scientific methods? Dawkins’ definition makes the answer to this question an obvious “No!” How can one make conclusions about a “supernatural” being by using only physical methods? Many philosophers consider the “existence of God” to be neither provable nor disprovable with scientific methods and mathematical certainty. Dawkins is not so naïve as to directly claim otherwise, but he dances around this generally accepted principle by introducing the concept of probability: “Even if God’s existence is never proved or disproved with certainty one way or the other, available evidence and reasoning may yield an estimate of probability far from 50 percent” (p. 73). This is a statement that clearly demonstrates Dawkins’ lack of knowledge in the field of probability, as well as his desperate need to score some points in an otherwise losing argument.
How does one estimate a probability? If I toss a coin and ask you what the probability of tails is, you might be tempted to say fifty percent. But are you sure? How do you know the coin is not irregular? How do you know I cannot toss it with such skill that the outcome is always heads? In fact, you do not know. In mathematics, there are two ways of estimating probabilities. One way is to set some assumptions, which may give you a good estimate if the assumptions are correct. In case of the coin, you may assume that it is a fair coin, with uniform weight distribution, entirely symmetrical, and that it is tossed in a completely random fashion. But if these assumptions are incorrect, the estimate will not be accurate. The second way to estimate the probability is to repeat the experiment many times and record the outcome. You may toss the coin 1000 times. If it lands tails up 300 times and heads up 700 times, then your estimate for the probability of tails would be 30 percent. This result would also show that the assumption about fairness is incorrect. To gain a true estimate would involve tossing the coin indefinitely and taking the limit of this ratio; but, such an experiment is impractical. When Dawkins tries to estimate the probability of God’s existence, he cannot use the second method, for it is not an experiment one can repeat many times. Therefore, he arrives at his conclusion by using the only remaining method: making assumptions. He makes some complicated, un-testable, and unverifiable assumptions (such as “God must have a complex structure”), and then concludes that the existence of God is highly improbable. But I could make my own assumptions and find a different probability. In fact, I could assume that God exists, and with such an assumption my estimate of probability for the existence of God would be 100 percent. In the end, whose assumptions are correct?
Who created God?
Dawkins has only one “strong” argument against God’s existence, which he repeats many times throughout the book: “Who made God?” (p. 136), “Who designed the designer?” (p. 147), “the designer himself immediately raises the bigger problem of his own origin”(p. 146). This same question is invoked repeatedly on pages 138, 147 (twice), 151, 161, 169, 171, 176, 178, 183, 186, 187, and 188. It becomes annoying after the third or fourth repetition. One keeps reading in hopes of encountering some new and fresher ideas; but all hope is vanquished by the time one flips the last page. While pondering the possible reasons for so much repetition I came across the answer within the very same pages: “if you repeat something often enough you will succeed in convincing yourself of its truth” (p. 394).
Dawkins believes that this question is his ultimate argument against God’s existence. But, this question is far from being a new one. For instance, in Bukhari’s hadith collection (written in 846 ad), the Prophet Muhammad is quoted as having said, “A day will certainly come when some people will sit with their legs crossed and ask, ‘If God created everything, then who created God?’”2 Apparently, more than a millennium later, atheists still have not come up with a better argument; they are still holding onto this thin, old thread.
Is this really a strong argument against God’s existence? If, in one’s mind, God is just a complex being, such as “the ultimate Boeing 747”(p. 138) airplane in the sky, then this might be a meaningful question to ask. But when one defines God as the Being who created everything – as all Christians, Jews, Muslims, and many Hindus and Buddhists do – then, by definition He is not created; He would not be God if He had been. This idea is best demonstrated by a metaphor.3 In a moving train, each car is seemingly pulled by the one before. But the locomotive is not pulled by anything, and it pulls all the other cars. The question, “Who pulls the locomotive?” is meaningless because the locomotive does not need to be pulled. The concept of “being pulled” simply does not apply to the locomotive. Similarly, in the infinite regress of creation, God is the locomotive, which makes the question, “Who created God?” meaningless. As a result, Dawkins’ argument against the existence of God, the argument that according to him makes the existence of God highly improbable, is nothing but a meaningless, paradoxical question. One could respond by saying, “The fact that a question can be phrased in a grammatically correct English sentence doesn’t make it meaningful” (p. 56).
Of course, what atheists like Dawkins truly mean by this question is: “If every form of existence needs a cause, how can God exist without a cause? And if God can exist without a cause, then why can’t the universe exist without a cause?” A logical response would be that every existence does not need a cause, but that everything that has a beginning needs a cause. The universe has a beginning; therefore, it needs a cause. According to the theory of relativity, time is a dimension of this universe. Therefore, time is also part of this nature (natural). Dawkins’ definition itself states that “God is supernatural,” which means He is beyond and above anything in this universe, including time. If that is so, then God is eternal (timeless); He has neither beginning nor end; hence, He does not need a cause.
A major portion of Dawkins’ book is devoted to addressing the anthropic principle, which is considered to be one of the strong arguments for God’s existence.
The Anthropic Principle
One version of the anthropic principle, sometimes called the strong anthropic principle, states that the laws and constants of the universe have properties that make inevitable the existence of intelligent life. Undoubtedly, we live on a life-friendly planet. Yet, the probability that a planet can be life-friendly is extremely small because a great many conditions and elements need to come together to form an environment suitable for life. For example, the planet needs to be at the right distance to the star (sun), and possess the right combination of elements, carbon, and water, the right atmospheric gases, and the right temperature. It is hard to assume all these conditions can co-exist by pure chance. This is one of the strong arguments for the existence of God. Dawkins does not answer this argument by pulling out his handy Swiss army knife, “Who created God?” but rather, by making the only other argument in his book that is worth discussing. Namely, he explains the existence of complex life on earth by the theory of evolution, and, in invoking this theory, he tries to explain how the conditions for life were established, that is, how life started on earth in the first place, for admittedly, in order for something to evolve, it needs to start evolving in suitable conditions. Dawkins’ argument against the anthropic principle is to speculate about the large number of planets. Today scientists think there are approximately one quintillion (a billion times a billion) planets in the universe, but, this number is just an approximation extrapolated from our solar system. It is not a verifiable number. “Suppose,” says Dawkins, the first life “was so improbable as to occur on only one in a billion planets. … even with such absurdly long odds, life will still have arisen on a billion planets, of which earth of course is one” (p. 138). Two major parts of this statement are flawed: the assumption involved, and the conclusion. His assumption that the probability of life starting on a planet is just one in a billion may very well be incorrect. Dawkins does not provide any justification for this assumption. Just because it sounds like a small probability does not mean we should accept it. Why one in a billion? Maybe that probability is one in a trillion times a trillion, in which case there would not even be enough planets to make the probability plausible. The second problem involves an even more profound mathematical error. In calculating probabilities, one must correctly define the sample space of events. That is to say, when considering the probability of life beginning on any given planet, our sample space is not all the planets in the universe; rather, it is only earth-like, life-friendly planets. One cannot include Jupiter in the sample space because it is known that life cannot occur on Jupiter. Hence, one would first have to estimate the number of life-friendly planets in the universe. If there are only one million life-friendly planets and the probability of occurrence of life is one in a billion, then the chance is not in favor of life. If that is so, then the occurrence of life (on earth) requires an explanation other than chance.
The inability to verify chance as a probable factor in the origin of life is, by the way, not the only weak link in evolutionary theory. Evolutionist Mark Ridley suggests in Mendel’s Demon that the origin of eukaryotic cells (cells with a nucleus, and other features, such as human and animal cells) is even a more difficult and statistically improbable step than the origin of life.4 Other similarly improbable steps, such as the origin of consciousness, have also been discussed by scientists.
Furthermore, it is evident – even to Dawkins – that we are not only living on a life-friendly planet, but also in a life-friendly universe: “the laws of physics must be friendly enough to allow life to arise. … physicists have calculated that, if the laws and constants of physics had been even slightly different, the universe would have developed in such a way that life would have been impossible” (p. 169). To answer this challenge to his argument about chance, Dawkins invokes the multi-universe hypothesis: “There are many universes like bubbles of foam, in a ‘multiverse.’ The laws and constants of any one universe, such as our observable universe, are by-laws” (p.173–174). In short, he concludes that it is possible for one of these universes to be life-friendly, and hence solves the difficulty of explaining one universe by assuming that there are many. Yet, his multiverse hypothesis is clearly not scientific; it is a belief. It is no simpler than assuming God created the universe.
So, how did the universe (or multiverse) come into existence in the first place? Physicists calculate the age of universe to be approximately 14 billion years from the time of its formation (i.e., the Big Bang); we know, therefore, that it has not been here indefinitely. Since it had a beginning, its existence requires an explanation.
The majority of the arguments in Dawkins’ latest book are poor, and in many cases based on incorrect assumptions and flawed conclusions. The writer makes colossal mistakes while discussing subjects he is unfamiliar with, such as the theory of probability. As an academic, he has no expertise in the field of sociology and yet makes grand claims about the role of religion in society. Dawkins must be seen as a popular science writer who uses his credentials as a scientist to give credibility to otherwise poor and often false theories, which are neither scientific nor objective. Atheists of the world will be indebted to him forever for being such a fanatical advocate of their ‘faith’, but those who truly seek knowledge will be able to see the shortcomings of his work very clearly..
B. H. Yenikaya holds a PhD in Mathematics.
Pape , Robert. Dying to Win. Random House, New York, 2005. 4
Bukhari, Muhammad I. “I’tisam #3” Sahih Bukhari. Kazi Publications, 1979
Gulen, M. F. Questions and Answers about Islam. The Light Inc., 2005.
Ridley, Mark. Mendel’s Demon. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Great Britain, 2000. 17
Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Bantam Press, Great Britain, 2008.