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Book Review: The God Delusion

David Roemer

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The God Delusion
by Richard Dawkins
Houghton Mifflin Company, 406 pp., $27.00

Like all atheists, Richard Dawkins does not understand the concept of God and why God exists. He has been told this before:

This is as good a moment as any to forestall an inevitable retort to the book, one that would otherwise -- as sure as night follows day -- turn up in a review: 'The God that Dawkins doesn't believe in is a God that I don't believe in either. I don't believe in an old man in the sky with a long white beard.' ... I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented. (p. 36)

In this review, I will try to succeed where others have failed so that we can say of Dawkins, "And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith ... "

Dawkins is an atheist because he places too much confidence in the methods and ideas of science. Working scientists are just people living their lives in a practical and reasonable manner. If something unusual occurs in the lab, scientists assumes there is a reason and try to replicate what happened. This is the same kind of common sense and reason mothers use when they assume there has been no change in the number of children they have when they are out shopping.

Since we are human beings, we are capable of more than just making a living and getting through the day. We are capable of asking questions that can't be answered. We are capable of philosophizing, in other words, and are perfectly justified in criticizing people whose philosophizing is irrational. In America, we treat people who believe in ghosts much worse than we treat atheists.

An example of an unanswerable philosophical question is the mind-body problem: What is the relationship between myself and my body? Dawkins, ever the scientist, does not agree that the question has no answer. This is what he says:

A dualist acknowledges a fundamental distinction between matter and mind. A monist, by contrast, believes that mind is a manifestation of matter -- material in a brain or perhaps a computer -- and cannot exist apart from matter. A dualist believes the mind is some kind of disembodied spirit that inhabits the body and therefore conceivably could leave the body and exist somewhere else. (p. 180)

This form of monism is called materialism or physicalism. Another form of monism is idealism, which is the philosophy that the material world doesn't exist. To understand this, imagine that you are sitting on a big rock and feeling gratitude to God for your existence. It occurs to you that God created the rock so you could sit on it and that God could just as easily have created in your mind the illusion of the rock. If you conclude that there is no reason to think the rock really exists, you are an idealist.

Bishop George Berkeley was alone when he thought this up and was relating in a very static and passive way to the rock. Our relations with other people, however, are not passive and static but active and dynamic. There is no question that other people exist because they throw rocks at us, one way or another, and the rocks are real.

This refutation of idealism leads to the concept of God and God's existence. While the mind-body problem makes it impossible to define man, the fact that we are different from other people means we can say: Man is a finite being. God is a being which is not like this. God is not finite, but infinite or totally other. We know God exists because a finite being can't be the reason or for its own existence. This is the metaphysical view of man and God that I learned as an undergraduate at a Catholic college from 1960 -- 1964.

A reason for the appeal of Dawkins's philosophy of man is in Webster's Third International Dictionary. Definition 4.c of substance is the one used by chemists, a sect in the religion of science. The definition of metaphysics, however, has nothing to do with physics. I suggest that Dawkins is willing to consider dualism and monism because the concept substance is implied, and is not willing to consider metaphysics because the concept of being is not scientific. Strangely, he seems to be aware that his monist/dualist analysis is not based on personal experience. Continuing from the above quote:

F. Amstey's 1882 novel Vice Versa makes sense to a dualist, but strictly should be incomprehensible to a dyed-in-the-wool monist like me ... Like most scientists, I am not a dualist, but I am nevertheless easily capable of enjoying Vice Versa and Laughing Gas. Paul Bloom would say this is because, even though I have learned to be an intellectual monist, I am a human animal and therefore evolved as an instinctive dualist. The idea that there is a me perched somewhere behind my eyes and capable, at least in fiction, of migrating into somebody else's head, is deeply ingrained in me and in every other human being, whatever our intellectual pretensions to monism. (p. 180, emphasis added)

Why pretend? Why not be honest and accept reality as you find it? Why say that free will is an illusion and the self is an epiphenomena? This is what fellow atheist Lee M. Silver says (see my review of Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality). Dawkins's friend Daniel Dennett likewise considers dualism and materialism to be the only philosophical choices (see my review of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomena) . Why believe and say something is true when you can't see the truth of it?

Professor Dawkins is willing to discuss the philosophy of being (metaphysics) when he thinks he can refute the proof of God's existence. (For my version of the proof click here.) He restates Aquinas's arguments and says:

All involve an infinite regress -- the answer to a question raises a prior question, and so on ad infinitum ... All three of these arguments rely upon the idea of a regress and invoke God to terminate it. They make the entirely unwarranted assumption that God himself is immune to the regress. (p. 77)

The last sentence is a reference to David Hume's refutation: Who made God? Hume misconstrued the principle of causality which is that every contingent being needs a cause. Hume thought Aquinas was saying every being needs a cause.

Dawkins continues the previous quote as follows:

Even if we allow the dubious luxury of arbitrarily conjuring up a terminator to an infinite regress and giving it a name, simply because we need one, there is absolutely no reason to endow that terminator with any of the properties normally ascribed to God: omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, creativity of design, to say nothing of such human attributes as listening to prayers, forgiving sins and reading innermost thoughts. (p. 77)

The regress Dawkins is referring to is a hypothetical chain of contingent beings in the metaphysical proof of God's existence. In this proof, a contingent being needs a cause and a self-sufficient or necessary being does not. Dawkins is mistakenly assuming that a self-sufficient being must terminate a contingent chain, so he is calling the self-sufficient being a "terminator." It can also exist outside of the chain and give the entire chain existence.

In his list of divine properties, Dawkins leaves out the key property of God which is the infinity of God. This is the basis of the proof of God's existence: a finite being needs a cause, but an infinite being does not. Saying there is no reason to say God is infinite is nonsense. Continuing with this long quote:

Incidentally, it has not escaped the notice of logicians that omniscience and omnipotence are mutually incompatible. If God is omniscient, he must already know how he is going to intervene to change the course of history using his omnipotence. But that means he can't change his mind about his intervention, which means he is not omnipotent. (p. 78)

This is a new one on me. The three arguments against God I know about are:

  • Why does God let innocent people suffer?
  • What motivated an infinite being to create finite beings?
  • How can we have free will if God knows what our actions will be?

In the chapters titled "Arguments for God's Existence" and "Why There Is Most Certainly No God" there is no reference to finite beings and infinite beings. Dawkins is not the one to go to for an answer to these questions. That he hit upon a good question is no more remarkable than the fact that a stopped clock is right twice a day.

In his chapter on morality, following a discussion of the conditions that favor the evolution of altruism and good morals, there is a subsection titled "If there is no God, why be good?" The beginning of the chapter Dawkins gives examples of how angry people get at the idea of morality without religion. I'm angry too because he doesn't answer the question. The title of the section is a scam.

Dawkins answers two similar questions: Does belief in God cause people to be good? Can you decide what is good without God? He also criticizes people who do good out of fear of God without, however, recommending the virtue of loving God:

When a religious person puts it to me in this way [title of the section] (and many of them do), my immediate temptation is to issue the following challenge: 'Do you really mean to tell me the only reason you try to be good is to gain God's approval and reward, or to avoid his disapproval and punishment? That's not morality, that's sucking up, apple-polishing, looking over your shoulder at the great surveillance camera in the sky, or the still small wiretap inside your head, monitoring your every move, even your every base thought (p. 226).

If you ask a religious person whey they are kind and honorable, you get an answer. If you ask the likes of Sigmund Freud and Richard Dawkins, there is no answer. To Freud's credit and Dawkins' shame, Freud admits he has no answer. Ernest Jones quotes Freud as follows:

When I ask myself why I have always behaved honorably, ready to spare others and to be kind whenever possible, and when I did not give up being so when I observed that in that way one harms oneself and becomes an anvil because other people are brutal and untrustworthy, then it is true, I have no answer. (Sigmund Freud, 2:465)

The God in the title of the book is not the God of metaphysics and reason. It is a personal God, one who satisfies our need to have a meaningful life, that is, the God of revelation. Dawkins says:

... I shall define the God Hypothesis more defensibly: there exists a super human, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it including us ... Not surprisingly, since it is founded on local traditions of private revelation rather than evidence, the God Hypothesis comes in many versions. (p. 32)

I believe in God and have faith in God because of the "local traditions of private revelations." I don't know if it is right to call it evidence since we are considering beliefs whose truth cannot be seen. Nor do I criticize anyone for not believing in revelation. Saying it is wrong not to believe would be an unfair criticism.

But I do criticize Dawkins and say he is wrong because it is apparent from this book that he has simply assumed religion isn't true. There are many who make this assumption, unaware that it is just an assumption, but who keep their lack of faith to themselves and give faith to their children. Not only doesn't Dawkins believe, he believes those who believe are wrong and that mankind would be better off without religion.

By way of refutation, I'd like to quote from a letter Saint Ambrose wrote to Emperor Theodosius in 390 AD after Roman troops massacred a big crowd of people, who happened to be in a stadium in Thessalonia, to retaliate against a protest of a tax increase that was already severely punished by the local authorities:

When it was first heard of, a synod had met because of the arrival of the Gallican Bishops. There was not one who did not lament it, not one who thought lightly of it; your being in fellowship with Ambrose was no excuse for your deed. Blame for what had been done would have been heaped more and more on me, had no one said that your reconciliation to our God was necessary.

Are you ashamed, O Emperor, to do that which the royal prophet David, the forefather of Christ, according to the flesh, did? To him it was told how the rich man who had many flocks seized and killed the poor man's one lamb, because of the arrival of his guest, and recognizing that he himself was being condemned in the tale, for that he himself had done it, he said: "l have sinned against the Lord." Bear it, then, without impatience, O Emperor, if it be said to you: You have done that which was spoken of to King David by the prophet. For if you listen obediently to this, and say: "I have sinned against the Lord," if you repeat those words of the royal prophet: "O come let us worship and fall down before Him, and mourn before the Lord our God. Who made us," it shall be said to you also: "Since thou repentest, the Lord putteth away thy sin, and thou shalt not die." (Internet Medieval Sourcebook: Ambrose to Theodosius I 390 [Letter 51])

Emperor Theodosius repented.

David Roemer was employed by the New York City Department of Education as a high school science teacher until I retired in 1998. He currently works as a copyeditor and writer of ancillaries for science textbooks. Romer has a Ph.D. in physics from New York University (1971) and a B. S. from Fordham College (1964).

Read the entire article on the David Roemer website (new window will open).

Posted: 28-Oct-06



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