The Assault on Religion (part 2)

By Richard Pimentel

Richard Dawkins is arguably the world’s most famous atheist. His ideas have been instrumental in promoting the worldview of atheism. Dawkins 2006 book, The God Delusion, has sold over 1.5 million copies and spent one year on the New York Times Hardcover Nonfiction Best Seller list. The popularity of this book has launched an increased interest in atheism during the last couple of years. Authors such as Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett have become the modern-day champions of atheism and even named by some as “The Four Horsemen.”

Whereas “The Assault on Religion (Part I)” focused on Christopher Hitchens, attention will be directed towards Richard Dawkins in part II. Dawkins is an ethologist, evolutionary biologist and author of various books and writings on Darwinian evolution. In the late 1960’s, Dawkins was an assistant professor of zoology at Univ. of California-Berkeley and in 1970, he became a lecturer in zoology at Oxford University. In 1995, Dawkins was appointed Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. This position was given to Dawkins with the expressed purpose of making important contributions to the public understanding of some scientific field. Dawkins certainly contributed particularly in the fields of evolutionary biology and ethology. Traditionally, ethology is the study of animal behavior. However when Dawkins published his well-known book, The Selfish Gene in (1976), he shifted the focus of evolutionary ethology to genes rather than the individual animal or animal populations. Dawkins proposed an idea that revolutionized Darwinian evolutionary thought. He argued that natural selection acts on genes over and above organisms. Genes consist of complex code that works to achieve their own selfish objectives. Thus the name  “selfish gene.” [N.B. Dawkins has repudiated the obvious anthromorphic language here though many believe he still has failed to explain how a gene can be 'selfish' without that explanation necessarily including teleological concepts.] The transfer of information via genes produces the necessary fitness that allows an organism or populations to survive and reproduce. Dawkins shifted the focus of evolution onto genes and their interests to replicate.

In addition, Dawkins extended this to culture by developing the idea “memes.” Dawkins described memes as the cultural equivalent of genes – ideas that the mind (brain in Dawkins' worldview) produces that compete and replicate and make their way to other minds/brains. Genes and memes are the driving force behind Dawkins’ views of human evolution. Furthermore, Dawkins published The Blind Watchmaker in 1986. In this book, Dawkins argues that natural selection can explain the complexity of organisms. Whether one agrees with Dawkins’ scientific views, his influence in the scientific community cannot be doubted.

Dawkins has taken this influence and used it to become one of atheism’s greatest apologists. He has attacked religion with the purpose of advancing the atheistic worldview. His most recent assault on religion was through his 2006 book titled The God Delusion. Dawkins’objectives included disproving God’s existence, presenting an evolutionary development for morality, and proving that religion has been harmful to the world and the world is better off without it. In particular, these objectives were objections stated against organized religion, particularly Christianity and Islam.

An excellent place to start if someone wants to understand Dawkins’ views is through his official  website – www.richarddawkins.net. The title of the site is the official Richard Dawkins website – A Clear Thinking Oasis. This is an insight into Dawkins' own perception of his worldview in contrast with the worldview of religionists. In an interview for Salon.com, Dawkins argues, “There’s a fair bit of evidence in favor of that equation, yes.” What equation? He said this in response to the following question – “It’s interesting that you link those two words – intelligent and atheistic. Are you saying the more intelligent you are, the more likely you are to be an atheist?” This can be seen in greater detail through the numerous essays and articles written by Dawkins on science, religion, and philosophy along with “quotes of note” listed on the sidebar. In addition, chapter 1 of The God Delusion is offered on the website for readers.

What does Dawkins offer as proof that believing in God is a delusion? First of all, it is important to note that when Dawkins talks about God, he is referring to the Abrahamic God. His objections are against the God of the Bible and the Quran. When discussing the existence of God, Dawkins has argued against numerous theistic arguments for God’s existence such as the Cosmological Argument, the Ontological Argument, Aquinas’ Five Ways, the Moral Argument, the argument from personal experience, and the argument from beauty. In addition, he has criticized scientists who admire religion and attempt to posit a relationship between science and religion. However, from all these arguments, Dawkins seems to focus more attention on the argument from design. This is not a surprise for this seems to be a preferred subject for Dawkins as evidenced in the The Blind Watchmaker.

In The Blind Watchmaker and The God Delusion, Dawkins concludes that evolution via natural selection can explain the apparent design in nature and his strongest attempt to demonstrate this is the argument from improbability or the “Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit.” This is an allusion to Fred Hoyle’s argument against the probability of life arising by itself on earth. Hoyle argued that the probability of this occurring on earth is no greater than a tornado sweeping through a junkyard and assembling a Boeing 747. Dawkins used this reference and argued that God is the ultimate Boeing 747. Why does he believe this? Dawkins believes that if something has evidence of design then it necessitates a designer that is superior to itself. Therefore, if God has evidence of design then God must require a designer superior to himself. Herein lies the improbability of a designer for the universe. Dawkins considers God inferior to evolution by natural selection as explanations for the complexity of life.

Although Dawkins posits other arguments to disprove God’s existence, he is arguably more infamous for his strong criticisms against organized religion, particularly religious upbringing in a home. In the Salon.com interview referred to earlier, Dawkins responds in the following manner to the question, “What is so bad about religion?”

Well, it encourages you to believe falsehoods, to be satisfied with inadequate explanations which really aren't explanations at all. And this is particularly bad because the real explanations, the scientific explanations, are so beautiful and so elegant. Plenty of people never get exposed to the beauties of the scientific explanation for the world and for life. And that's very sad. But it's even sadder if they are actively discouraged from understanding by a systematic attempt in the opposite direction, which is what many religions actually are. But that's only the first of my many reasons for being hostile to religion.

Dawkins has stated other reasons for being hostile to religion. He believes that there is something very evil about faith. He defines faith as believing in something despite the absence of evidence. However, his view on a religious upbringing is even harsher. Dawkins contends that teaching religious beliefs to children is tantamount to child abuse. Dawkins remarked,

I would say that parents should teach their children anything that's known to be factually true --like "that's a bluebird" or "that's a bald eagle." Or they could teach children that there are such things as religious beliefs. But to teach children that it is a fact that there is one god or that God created the world in six days, that is child abuse.

Along with his many supporters, Dawkins also has many critics. Although some of those critics are scientists, most of them are religious philosophers and theologians. Nonetheless, it is very interesting that one former champion of atheism, Antony Flew, has written a strong critique of Richard Dawkins and his book, The God Delusion. Flew refers to Dawkins as a “secularist bigot” and someone who is not “interested in the truth as such but is primarily concerned to discredit an ideological opponent by any available means.” Regarding the latter quote, Flew stated this in response to Dawkins statement on page 82 of The God Delusion in which Dawkins claims that Flew’s conversion to a belief in a deity was an “over-publicized tergiversation.” Despite which side one falls regarding the views of Richard Dawkins, it is clear that he is a significant and popular figure in the modern-day assault on religion.