The Chronicle: Daily News Blog: Richard Dawkins Goes Head to Head With Campus Critics of His Attack on Religion
What I find so frustrating about Dawkins is not his views but that (1) he insists that science (specifically Darwinianism) proves that God doesn’t exist, as Stephen Gould pointed out science has no place ruling on matters of spirituality, his conclusion is a non sequitur; (2) he insists that “religion” is a great evil that must be eradicated (he likens it to a virus that infects humanity). Certainly religious people have done many horrible things in the name of religion and there are even some religions that have espoused practices that many today would find abhorrent, but it is illogical to say that “religion” abstractly is inherently bad and “The Root of All Evil.”
BTW, did anyone else see the very clever (if very rude) South Park two part episode where they dismantled his eutopian vision (“Cartman 2546“)? While Cartman is in a deep freeze (to wait out the release of Wii) Dawkins and their teacher Mr(s). Garrison hook up and s/he inspires Dawkins to press his war against theism and religion. When Cartman is thawed the world is now atheist, religion is no more. But wars and fights continue… What a surprise!
16 thoughts on “Richard Dawkins Goes Head to Head With Campus Critics of His Attack on Religion”
I agree with your conclusions about Dawkins. I recently wrote an article called Richard Dawkins, Atheism, and Christianity that explores similar issues, and although it is from a Christian perspective, I think you’ll find some similar ideas.
Thanks Jake! Excellent article. I think that the critique presented by Rollins is accurate although I do think that there is an historical component to Christianity that is vital (1 Cor. 15.17). This too, I think is a fair rejoinder to Dawkins’ Flying Spaghetti Monster challenge that just because you can’t prove something doesn’t mean it exists. Or, the proof is on theists to demonstrate that God does exist. Well, there is reasonable historical proof, as reasonable as any historical proof from antiquity, regarding elements of Jesus’ death, etc. So I think some element of this debate about proof is valuable, but I have a feeling Jim West will chime in at any moment arguing that as soon as “proof” enters in “faith” goes out. 🙂
Tim, you asked where I had seen or read this. I heard him say this at the Oxford Union in the mid 90s, I have read him state similar sentiments, and in an article on his site (which seems to be down right now http://richarddawkins.net/tourJournal) as recently as yesterday. You are correct, he often nuances this saying, for example that it is so improbable as to go to zero and so on. But he says that one of the most important questions for science is the existence of God and that the answer is “no.”
Now, you have defined faith as “belief without evidence” and that is not quite an accurate definition. Take the New Oxford American Dictionary, for example:
1 complete trust or confidence in someone or something : this restores one’s faith in politicians. 2 strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof. • a system of religious belief : the Christian faith. • a strongly held belief or theory : the faith that life will expand until it fills the universe.
While the second definition does imply a lack of evidence, the first does not. In fact, if one considers the New Testament (and over all biblical) view and use of the concept of “faith” it does not rely solely upon evidence in a scientific sense. Rather it is based upon the very real experiences of (in the NT examples) disciples and early Christians.
This is what I referred to before and this is where I think folks like Dawkins are being somewhat disingenuous. They say that there is no evidence of the existence of God but that is because they have already determined that any evidence that they cannot explain naturalistically is inadmissible. Miracles therefore are not considered, testimony of those who had such experiences, etc. So the assertion that “there is no evidence for the existence of God” is not entirely accurate; he is not acknowledging any evidence.
Found a quotation from Dawkins, which should put this improbable/disproved thing to rest:
“We cannot prove that there is no God, but we can safely conclude the He is very, very improbable indeed.”
I submit that the proposition with which you began this thread, “What I find so frustrating about Dawkins is not his views but that (1) he insists that science (specifically Darwinianism) proves that God doesn’t exist…” is incorrect. Do you agree?
I am sorry that I cannot provide you with the precise quote at this time. I have read and heard him say this. *shrug* if you don’t what to take my testimony then that is fine.
My example of miracles was not to prove God’s existence but to point out one set of data that Dawkins refuses to consider because of his a priori assumption that God does not exist. If you want circular, try that logic. God does not exist, therefore miracles do not occur and thus God does not exist.
Another typical falacy is to assume that a rational explanation, is the same thing as a natural explanation. Reason can be employed to examine matters beyond those that natural science can describe.
FWIW I do not offer miracles as the sole evidence of the existence of God. (The primary definition of a miracle, by the way, is “an event that appears to be contrary to the laws of nature” [NOAD]; it may or may not be attributed to G/god. You might peruse this essay: “God is not in this classroom”.) I have never witnessed a miracle myself. The reasons for my belief in God are too complex for a single blog post, or many. Again, I merely offer it as one of Dawkins’ many blind spots.
Remember, my beef is not with Dawkins’ beliefs about God. It is with his insistence (and yours it would seem) that it is irrational to believe in God and that religion is “the root of all evil.” Humanity and human nature is that root…
PS – for an excellent discussion of Dawkins’ views (from one who had, at one time held them, if I recall correctly) see Alistair McGrath’s work. An essay sampling can be found here.)
Tim, thanks for the ongoing discussion. I am sorry your last comment went into moderation, that was a function of the blog, not me…
You said, “I submit that the proposition with which you began this thread, “What I find so frustrating about Dawkins is not his views but that (1) he insists that science (specifically Darwinianism) proves that God doesn’t exist…” is incorrect. Do you agree?”
I guess I will agree to the specificity, that Dawkins says that science cannot prove that God doesn’t exist, but I still think it is essentially semantics (a “nuance” as I referred to it before). Because he insists that science shows God’s existence to be so improbable that it is a near certainty.
In your email you said,
First, if you want to be precise about quotes, and you seem to be, then note that I did not say or suggest that you said it was “sole” evidence. I was clarifying my own position. That is all.
You have not shown that Dawkins’ view is not circular, you have merely stated that it is not. Now, my point is that miracles COULD be evidence of the existence of God and Dawkins is unwilling to admit it as evidence. They could also be evidence of many other things, yet unknown or explained in different ways, any of which might not be naturalistic explanations. But Dawkins is unwilling to consider any explanation other than that which is naturalistic.
Which event? The resurrection of Jesus. There is as much historical evidence for that event as for just about anything else in ancient history (and much of history since, including present day events). I seriously doubt, given your comments, that this will be persuasive for you. I do not mean for it to be.
It is his DVD. If he didn’t like the title he should have it removed or insist that the DVD not be played. But he has called religion a virus, a cancer, an evil, etc. that should be eradicated. Do you dispute that this is the substance of his position?
I apologize for misrepresenting your views; in fact, in reference to your comments I was thinking more specifically about the irrationality of believing in God. You said, “Attributing unexplainable things to a “God” seems to me to be such an intellectual cop-out.” I am suggesting that artificially limiting the possible explanations to only that which we can replicate or observe in nature is an intellectual “cop-out” and severely limiting our sources of knowledge. That is why (see below) I emphasized the character of a miracle as something that doesn’t happen in the natural course of events. I.e., if it really happened then by definition we should not be able to find a naturalistic explanation of it. Using our intellect and reason to think through all possibilities is hardly a cop-out. (Granted, there are many who do cop-out on this matter. But many think it through and simply come to different conclusions that.)
I thought you might get picky about that. No, I was not contradicting the definition. If I had wanted to play that game I hardly would have suggested you read my paper. I was very specifically offering a clarification of the definition. The definition does go on, as you note, to say “and is regarded as an act of God.” I said “it may or may not be attributed to G/god” which I think is a fair paraphrase and interpretation of not only NOAD’s definition (although I do reject that firm “is” rather than a more ambiguous “may be”) but is also in keeping with the reality of the how people, past and present, in various cultures, respond to such events. Some people may attribute to the events to an act of a deity, but they may also attribute them to other sources. I also emphasized “primary definition” because the initial, that is primary, focus is upon the fact that the event in question appears to be contrary to the laws of nature. (Note, that I said “appears” I am not saying that it is.)
Finally, in full disclosure and lest anyone get the wrong impression of my views, I do not have a problem with an evolutionary explanation of the origins of species. I do wonder about some of the major jumps but it is not my field so I defer to those who are expert in it. I recommend Gould’s article Non-overlapping magisteria.
Indeed, there’s little mathematical difference between “its existence is highly improbable” and “it definitely doesn’t exist”. And while I’m willing to concede to you that the difference might be a “nuance” (since it’s a slight degree of difference), I won’t agree that it’s purely semantics. I do think it’s an important distinction. You may not. So be it.
Re miracles and circularity, I don’t think we even get to examining whether Dawkins’ view is circular until we wrestle with the idea of a miracle in the first place. I don’t think it’s being “picky” to be precise about whether the “attributable to God” portion of the definition is in or out, since that’s fundamental to the discussion. I’m fine either way, but let’s agree on a definition. If by miracle you mean something that is attributable to God, then to argue that miracles are evidence of the existence of God is, I think, circular. The circularity arises IF the process by which you get to God’s involvement is by way of saying “I can’t come up with any other (natural/rational/etc.) explanation, so it must be God.”
If your definition of miracle does not include God’s intervention, then the argument is not circular but then miracles aren’t evidence for the existence of God.
(And on the point of definition, FWIW, I don’t agree that your “clarification” of the NOAD’s definition is a “fair paraphrase”. As you yourself noted, NOAD has a firm “is” in the definition. You may “reject” NOAD’s definition if you wish, but you were the one who cited their definition in the first place. And the dictionary I quoted from was equally affirmative.)
As for the resurrection of Jesus, you’re correct in your assumption that I am not persuaded. I don’t accept the Bible’s account of that event as a literal and accurate historical record. I expect that you do, and on that point you and I are probably at an irreconcilable disagreement. I would ask this question, though — for those parts of the Bible that purport to be a literal and accurate historical record, do you accept all such parts as being literal and accurate? If not, on what basis do you select those that you accept to be true?
Re the title of Dawkins’ documentary, I agree with your criticism of him. I am not familiar at all with the interaction between documentary producers, writers, and hosts, but if I were all over a documentary like that, I would sure want control over the title of it.
And to answer your question directly, I do not dispute that you have correctly described the substance of his position, i.e. that religion is something that should be eradicated. I’m not sure he has called religion a virus, a cancer or an evil, but he might well have, and I’m not saying that he hasn’t. He has certainly said that the propagation of religious beliefs is analogous to the way a virus reproduces itself.
Finally, thank you for your patience in continuing this discussion. I find it very intriguing, and it’s actually the first time that this life-long atheist (technically agnostic, I suppose, but like Dawkins I’d choose “highly improbable”) has engaged in a discussion like this. I’m genuinely interested in trying to understand how and why people make the leap of faith (I don’t mean that term to be pejorative) required to believe in God.
Might I recommend two posts I wrote concerning the role of assumptions in analysis, and how they can serve to shape, and limit, discussion.
Agreed. Which is why I was offering a definition and was very precise in doing so.
Fair enough, which is why I clarified the definition as I did. It is not an uncommon definition, at least not among those who study such matters as part of their discipline.
That does not follow. The definition need not always require God as the explanation but it may. It sounds like, according to the logic you seem to be presenting, that anything that one might put forward would be inadmissible as evidence of the existence of because it may be used as evidence of God!
Finally, as for who makes the definitions, I would suggest that no single dictionary may be the final authority, certainly not one so generalized as the ones we were both quoting. The study of religious texts and, as a result, claims of supernatural phenomena within those texts, is my discipline. I have a certain amount of authority in the area and so I am providing a definition that I believe better matches both the use and meaning of the term throughout history, including modern usage. I merely started from NOAD as a base that others might recognize and worked from there.
Tim wrote as well:
That is a fair but very long and complicated answer. I am afraid I do not have the time now to say more than that I try and read the texts as I would any other texts, as an historian. I try to recognized my own biases, origins, and influences and, so far as possible, set them aside. Where I find I cannot, I try and keep them to the fore so that I can push against them, challenge them. To the specifics (and you may have gleaned this from the paper I presented and linked to earlier) I accept the texts assertions, e.g., I accept that the authors believed that Jesus truly rose from the dead, while questioning the actual events. E.g., Why should I believe that he rose from the dead?
To continue with the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Do I think the Gospels portray an historical account? Absolutely. They record an event that only the most skeptical of scholars dispute. Their accounts are no less historical than Julius Caesar’s writings or Dan Rather’s memoirs. Are the biased? Absolutely. And they contain what often seems contradictory. What is amazing is the things they agree upon. There can be lots of reasons for that, common source being the most obvious, but most scholars agree that it is reporting, with reasonable accuracy, an historical event. That is certainly true for the crucifixion, but even the resurrection accounts leave many scholars who are not Christians accepting that something happened to cause the disciples to believe Jesus was no longer dead.
Thank you! I do not take it as pejorative in the least. I would only suggest that for most it isn’t a leap at all. I think for everyone it is something different that convinces them and for most who believe in a religion (that is, after an examination of beliefs and concepts) it is more an acquiescence to what they are now convinced to be true.
I have decided to provide the various supports that I have found, along with my analysis of the flaws of failing to recognize your assumptions. Come to my blog and listen to my podcast. As an added bonus, I don’t just tell you what he said on NPR and in the New Scientist podcast–I include it!
I figured I should give the Specific Link… So here ya go–direct and to the point!
Dawkins, God and the presumption of Assumptions
Great! Thanks Steve.