Is He Out There?: Debating The God Delusion by Paul Laffan is an interdisciplinary examination of and commentary on the Christian reaction to Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. In this blog post Paul considers Dawkins’s arguments and monotheistic mode of thinking.
Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion is reputed to have sold more than three million copies and has been translated into over 30 languages. One measure of the book’s impact has been the breadth of responses it has drawn. Theologians, philosophers, historians and practising Christians all saw the vigour and bluntness of Dawkins’s arguments as posing an unprecedented challenge to monotheism. However, they responded in very different ways.
Fundamentally, Is He Out There? is an analysis of these responses. I realised though, somewhat as I was writing the book, that I was trying to use the reaction to The God Delusion to give an account of the current state of play with Christian monotheism. How good are its arguments? And particularly, how convincing are the attempts to achieve a co-habitation with modern science? Quite rightly, many of the respondents realised that unless they could give an account of monotheistic belief which was compatible with science’s phenomenal success, belief in God would no longer be credible. I found that two paths were taken: one claims that religion and science are concerned with completely different matters – what I call the ‘two worlds argument’ – and so without consequence each for the other. The other, that the latest science, like quantum mechanics, opens up the way to a reintegration of God into a scientific account of the world.
Unfortunately, neither argument works. It is difficult to see how what we hold to be true of the universe will not affect our understanding of our place within it. The great face-offs between science and religion demonstrate this very well. Christianity would not have responded as it did to the heliocentrism of Galileo or the evolutionary theory of Darwin if it had not seen that they posed a threat to fundamental tenets. Darwinism continues to be rejected by the man sometimes described as the the greatest living Christian philosopher today, Alvin Plantinga. Plantinga argues that the evolution of the mammalian eye would require a greater amount of time than is provided by the existence of mammalian life on the planet. However, his arguments involve a rudimentary misunderstanding of evolutionary processes.
As for quantum mechanics, as the great physicist Richard Feynman said, if you think you understand it you don’t. Given that Feynman was one of science’s greatest explicators, a very considerable degree of caution has to be exercised by anyone seeking to deploy quantum mechanics for an argument about the relationship between God and the universe. It is true that while the universe around us appears reliable and predictable, quantum mechanics finds sub-atomic reality to be probabilistic. True also that physicists are divided as to how to explain the relationship between the two. But that somewhere behind the veil of our ignorance, God is functioning as a cause in a way that clears up all the problems, is false to the premises of the theory.
I am yet to mention the part of Dawkins’ book which generated most media discussion: the argument which he rather notoriously claimed showed that God ‘almost certainly didn’t exist’. The argument has to do with the different probability of complex life (like a human being), as opposed to simple life (a unicellular organism). Complex life is less probable, so how has it come to be? One explanation is that God designed it. Dawkins argued God would have to be at least as complex as anything he designed and thus have ‘to be highly improbable in the very same statistical sense as the entities he is supposed to explain’. Thus a classic infinite regress occurs: having used God to explain the improbable, an explanation of his improbability is required. The argument was much criticised and Dawkins accused of being false to basic philosophy of science. If God is the best explanation of complex life, the explanation should be accepted. But what constitutes a good explanation is itself a matter of dispute.
Counter-arguments to Dawkins also came from the other side of the science and humanities divide. One contends that reading the Bible for information, rather than spiritual enlightenment, is itself a product of the rise of science and mistaken. Nevertheless, it is clear that for the majority of the Christian era, the Bible has been read as historically informative and was so by definitive figures like Paul and Augustine. What none of the arguments advanced against The God Delusion are able to overturn is that how we understand our existence now – in terms of the age of the universe, the origin and evolution of life, whether there is life after death – is defined by science not Christianity. Further, we have only been able to achieve this understanding by emancipating ourselves from a monotheistic mode of thinking.
Paul Laffan teaches Writing and Literature at the City Literary Institute, London.
Is He Out There? is available to order on our website.
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