The Gods That Failed

By Stan Persky | February 16, 2007


I’m hardly the first one to have spotted the new intellectual mini-trend advocating atheism. It’s inspired a profusion of books, reviews, newspaper columns, blog comments, and websites discussing and debating the rejection of theism. More important, increasing numbers of scientists, philosophers, and other intellectuals, perhaps disturbed by the consequences of Christian and Islamic fundamentalist religious beliefs in the turbulent first decade of the new millennium (the “noughty 2000s,” as someone put it), have decided to “come out” and declare that as far as they know God doesn’t exist.

Recent books taking this view include Julian Baggini’s Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (2003), Sam Harris’ The End of Faith (2004) and Letter to a Christian Nation (2006), Lewis Wolpert’s Six Impossible Things before Breakfast: the Evolutionary Origins of Belief (2006), Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural PhenomenonThe God Delusion (2006). As well, according to the 2007 publishers’ lists, several similar volumes are in the works. (2006), and preeminently, Richard Dawkins’

Commentary on the New Atheism, as it’s sometimes called, has reached Biblical Deluge proportions. Leaving aside the predictable negative reactions from “faith-heads” (as Dawkins dismissively calls them), serious criticism ranges from such scholars as Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books, Nobel prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg in TLS, philosopher Thomas Nagel in the New Republic, biologist Allen Orr in the New York Review of Books, and philosopher Dan Dennett in Free Inquiry, to a journalistic panoply that includes, just in this country, Globe and Mail books editor Martin Levin, Vancouver Sun religion writer Doug Todd, the National Post’s Jonathan Kay, and various postings in my local B.C. online newspaper The Tyee. Recently, Time magazine carried a cover story on the phenomenon, one of the first since its renowned obituary-black cover asked “Is God Dead?” back in the 1960s. I don’t think it has hit Oprah yet, but Dennett and Dawkins have been popping up on the tube with some regularity.

The tipping point in all the current soul-searching (or should that be soulless-searching?) is clearly The God DelusionThe Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker. Dawkins’ new book has been on the New York Times’ bestseller list for the last five or six months, and in Canada was at the top of the Globe’s list the last time I looked. by biologist and Oxford Professor for the Public Understanding of Science Richard Dawkins, author of several widely-praised books about evolution including

It should be noted that the revived discussion of atheism, like periodic religious revivals and manias, has occurred several times before in history, usually in periods of scientific breakthrough and political upheaval. Atheistic speculation, for example, followed closely on the heels of the scientific discoveries of the 17th century astronomers. The Roman Catholic Church’s demands for Galileo’s recantation in the post-Reformation 1630s registered early religious unease about science’s displacement of the earth from the centre of the universe, where God had allegedly located his greatest creation. The very name of philosopher Baruch Spinoza became almost a synonym for atheism in the 1640s and succeeding decades, as Richard Israel documents in his book Radical Enlightenment, even though Spinoza was more probably a sort of Pantheist, someone who believes that God is in everything or that God is Nature.

Leaders of the French and American revolutions in the following century were almost all, if not outright atheists, the next best thing. The cosmic beliefs of a Thomas Jefferson, say, embraced something known as Deism, a sort of belief in a Higher Something or Other, but unlike the familiar Judeo-Catholic-Protestant-Islamic versions of God, the Deist higher power was utterly impersonal, undescribable, and unknowable. Perhaps the major impetus for questioning the existence of God came in the wake of Charles Darwin’s 1859 publication of The Origin of Species. Whatever else Darwin’s “dangerous idea” (as Dennett calls it in a 1995 book of that title) demonstrated about evolution, it has been reasonably clear ever since then that human beings are not a special and separate creation, but have evolved from previous forms of life. At best, God might be thought to have “kickstarted” the universe, unleashing a relatively undesigned evolutionary process that gave rise to life on earth, life that included dinosaurs and all sorts of other creatures that went extinct, as well as thousands of species of still-living termites, beetles, butterflies, rodents and oh yes, us.

Periodic bursts of atheistic questioning occurred throughout the 20th century, often in conjunction with various catastrophes and developments. The cataclysms included World War I, Freudianism, and Einsteinian and quantum physics in the first three decades of the century; followed by the global upheavals of the 1960s and a failed U.S. war in Vietnam, accompanied by a proposed New Age spiritualism in place of the familiar deities; and now there’s this, at the beginning of the 21st century, a period featuring another failed and quasi-religious U.S. war in Iraq, computer technology breakthroughs, religious extremism, and the prospect of planetary destruction in the form of global warming. People who want an Internet blow-by-blow of the current debate about atheism can check-out Wikipedia’s “God Delusion” entry or


Dawkins’ book is meant to be a provocative, lively, popular work, aimed at a readership of ordinary, literate people, an intention occasionally forgotten by its more scholarly critics.

His aim, as he puts in the preface, is “consciousness-raising.” Dawkins says, “I suspect-well, I am sure-that there are lots of people out there who have been brought up in some religion or other, are unhappy in it, don’t believe it, or are worried about the evils that are done in its name; people who feel vague yearnings to leave their parents’ religion and wish they could, but just don’t realize that leaving is an option. If you are one of them, this book is for you.” Dawkins doesn’t say, but it’s likely also true that a lot of his readers are already non-believers and want their views confirmed and their arguments buttressed. Thus Dawkins, in addition to addressing the wavering, is also not so much preaching to as reassuring the existing choir of non-believers. But the main aim is to challenge the doubters. The book, he emphasizes, “is intended to raise consciousness to the fact that to be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one. You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled.”

Second, Dawkins wants people to become aware that natural selection and other scientific theories are far superior to the widely-held but implausible “God hypothesis” in explaining both the world we live in and the distant cosmos. He takes these issues up in a series of chapters critiquing the belief in God, examining the classic arguments for God’s existence, and putting forward his own position on “Why there almost certainly is no God.”

A third aim of Dawkins’ polemic is to argue against the indoctrination of children with religious beliefs, a practice that Dawkins views as akin to child abuse. Along the way, although it’s not presented as a programmatic aim, Dawkins makes it clear that he’s not opposing merely extreme or fundamentalist religion, but all religion, even the seemingly mild-mannered, reasonable sort. Finally, he hopes to instill “atheist pride” among non-believers.

Apart from consciousness-raising goals, Dawkins takes up a few other important items. He defends the use of the term “delusion” in his title, offering a dictionary meaning of it as “a persistent false belief in the face of strong contradictory evidence.” He cites Robert Persig’s quip, “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion, it is called Religion.” Dawkins also seeks to explain the ubiquity of religion, both historically and geographically, and to address the question of whether one can be moral without religious belief. In both cases, he offers a set of speculations based on an evolutionary account of religious beliefs and natural morality. Along the way he anticipates and responds to-how persuasively is a matter of debate-the objection that if religion in power has caused considerable harm, atheism in power has been equally monstrous. First and last, Dawkins offers an explanation of “how a proper understanding of the magnificence of the real world, while never becoming a religion, can fill the inspirational role that religion has historically-and inadequately-usurped.”

If all goes well, religious readers who open his book “will be atheists when they put it down.” Then Dawkins snorts self-derisively, “What presumptuous optimism!” More seriously, he recognizes that “dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument, their resistance built up over years of childhood indoctrination using methods that took centuries to mature. Among the more effective immunological devices is a dire warning to avoid even opening a book like this, which is surely a work of Satan.” But the people Dawkins is seeking are more open-minded, “people whose childhood indoctrination was not too insidious, or for other reasons didn’t ‘take,’ or whose native intelligence is strong enough to overcome it. Such free spirits should need only a little encouragement to break free of the vice of religion altogether.” I cite this early passage in the book because it also suggests Dawkins’ uncompromising, contentious, sometimes derisive tone, which may account for some of the fuss that his book has quite intendedly kicked up.

The opening lines of Dawkins’ chapter about the “God Hypothesis,” probably the most widely quoted passage in the reviews, gives an even stronger sense of the flavour: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

Dawkins then pretends to relent, “It is unfair to attack such an easy target. The God Hypothesis should not stand or fall with its most unlovely instantiation… Instead I shall define the God Hypothesis more defensibly: there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us. This book will advocate an alternative view: any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution. Creative intelligences, being evolved, necessarily arrive late in the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it. God, in the sense defined, is a delusion… a pernicious delusion.” Dawkins will later lean heavily on the old chestnut response to the claim that God created the universe: Yeah? Then who created God?

Here, however, I’m merely pointing to Dawkins’ polemic strategy, which has come in for criticism. The claim above about Yahweh, which is fairly characteristic of the book’s rhetorical heights, is intentionally over the top because Dawkins wants to emphasize exactly how strange so many religious beliefs are, whether it’s the Old Testament God, labyrinthine conceptions of a Trinity, fanciful prospects of paradise for suicide-bombers, or cult-like beliefs about blood transfusions. It’s only after arguing for a recognition that believers have to take responsibility for their own over-the-top notions that Dawkins is willing to say, okay, let’s more reasonably consider claims and counter-claims. That is, there is a strategy to Dawkins’ approach; it’s not just uncontrolled venting against “the vice of religion.” Again, I mention this because some of his critics seem to be unaware of Dawkins’ intentions.


Most of the reviewers of The God Delusion-and here I’m thinking only of those who share or who might be expected to share Dawkins’ basic views-wish that Dawkins’ book were better, as do I. The criticisms range from the reasonable to the strange, and it’s worthwhile to provide a sampling.

Perhaps the most bizarre of the critiques is that of Terry Eagleton (“Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching,” London Review of Books, Oct. 19, 2006) who charges Dawkins with being a theological vulgarian, if not worse. “Imagine someone holding forth on biology,” Eagleton begins, “whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” Dawkins’ “vulgar caricatures of religious faith… would make a first-year theology student wince,” he says. “What, one wonders, are Dawkins’ views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Erigena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them?” Well, maybe not. Dawkins makes no claims for sophistication when it comes to examining theology, but he does examine various Biblical claims, Anselm’s and Aquinas’ “proofs” for the existence of God, and sundry other bits of religious thinking. More important, one wants to ask, is Eagleton claiming that a more sophisticated knowledge of theology would give us good reasons for believing in God (or the God Hypothesis), or is he simply saying that a better grasp of theology by Dawkins would go some way to satisfying intellectual standards?

It’s hard to tell. Eagleton scoffs at Dawkins for knocking down a straw-man God, “if not exactly [one] with a white beard, then at least some kind of chap, however supersized.” Rather than such a caricature, claims Eagleton, “for Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person… Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing… This, not some super-manufacturing, is what is traditionally meant by the claim that God is Creator. He is what sustains all things in being by his love; and this would still be the case even if the universe had no beginning.”

If Dawkins is cheerfully vulgarian about theology-he tends to airily reply that after all he doesn’t believe in fairies, and no one demands that he master the fine points of fairy-ology-it’s possible that Eagleton is a teensy bit oversophisticated about it. He insists at several points that his God, whom it would be “perfectly coherent” to claim “does not in fact exist,” and who is “the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever,” is an account of the “traditional” understanding of God. He repeatedly chides Dawkins for understanding “nothing of these traditional doctrines.” He complains that Dawkins seeks to grab “a victory on the cheap by savaging [theology] as so much garbage and gobbledygook”; though he concedes that “the mainstream theology I have just outlined may well not be true,” he insists that “anyone who holds it is in my view to be respected.” He is particularly incensed, and this may be his main objection, that Dawkins lumps together “the huge number of believers who hold something like the theology I outlined” with the “rednecks who murder abortionists and malign homosexuals.”

I understand Eagleton’s complaint about Dawkins’ derisiveness, but what puzzles me is his claim that his own account represents “traditional” or “mainstream” theology, or the implication that it provides a good reason for believing in God. Which mainstream, traditional theology? I want to ask. Perhaps seventeenth century mainstream Deism? But of course there was no “mainstream” Deism. Nor, I suspect, is there a “huge number” of believers who share Eagleton’s idea of “traditional” theology. There are, by my observation, fairly huge numbers of Catholics, Protestants, Islamists, Hindus and even Jews who adhere to some form of the sort of vulgar theologies at which Dawkins directs his barbs. There are also sizeable denominations, like the United Church of Canada, to take a local example, whose theology is closer to, if not quite as aetherial as, that of Eagleton, and it is Dawkins’ failure to pay much attention to them that leads other critics besides Eagleton to complain about that particular point. In the end, though, Eagleton doesn’t say much to refute Dawkins, and his own high-faluting theology reeks of obscurantism.

University of Rochester biology professor Allen Orr (“A Mission to Convert,” The New York Review of Books, Jan. 11, 2007) is free of Eagleton’s pretensions, but his objections to Dawkins, if more plain-spoken, are just as wide-ranging. “The God Delusion seems to me badly flawed,” he says. Its most disappointing feature is “Dawkins’ failure to engage religious thought in any serious way…The result is a book that never squarely faces its opponents.” Like Eagleton, Orr complains that there’s no serious examination of theology, “no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions,” no interest in Church-science history, and “no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes. Instead, Dawkins has written a book that’s distinctly, even defiantly, middlebrow.” Why the last is an objection is unclear, since “middlebrow” is precisely the readership Dawkins is seeking, unless Orr means that middlebrow by definition means shoddy goods.

What follows is a reasonably cogent litany of criticisms that range from the substance of Dawkins’ claims to matters of style and approach. One of Orr’s many complaints is that Dawkins is indiscriminate about characterizing different religious beliefs and further, he distorts the historical record of human evil when judging religion and atheism in public office. More broadly, Dawkins suffers from “a failure of metaphysical imagination. When thinking of those vast matters that make up religion-matters of ultimate meaning that stand at the edge of intelligibility and that are among the most difficult to articulate-he sees only black and white. Despite some attempts at subtlety, Dawkins almost reflexively identifies religion with right-wing fundamentalism and biblical literalism. Other, more nuanced possibilities-varieties of deism, mysticism, or nondenominational spirituality-have a harder time holding his attention. It may be that Dawkins can’t imagine these possibilities vividly enough to worry over them in a serious way.” I don’t have a problem with Orr’s criticisms of Dawkins; I share many of them. What I notice, however, is that Orr (and others) say very little about the core thesis Dawkins presents, namely, that there aren’t any good reasons to believe in a God, apart from wishful thinking, psychological self-comforting, and delusion. Given the enormous extent of unlikely religious beliefs abroad, I’m surprised that such critics aren’t prepared to cut Dawkins a bit more slack.

Physicist Steven Weinberg (“A Deadly Certitude,” Times Literary Supplement, Jan. 17, 2007), himself a long-time public advocate of atheism, who has regularly cautioned fellow scientists about cavalierly talking about “the mind of God,” offers a far more sympathetic reading of Dawkins. Weinberg notes the harsh tenor of many of the reviews of Dawkins, remarking that he finds it disturbing that Thomas Nagel dismisses Dawkins as an “amateur philosopher” while Eagleton “sneers at Dawkins for his lack of theological training.” Weinberg asks, “Are we to conclude that opinions on matters of philosophy or religion are only to be expressed by experts, not mere scientists or other common folks?” Weinberg’s own criticisms tend to be offered as augmentations of or turns on Dawkins’ interpretations.

Weinberg, for instance, takes up Dawkins’ rejection of the classic “proofs” of the existence of God, saying, “I agree with Dawkins in his rejection of these proofs, but I would have answered them a little differently.” While the “cosmological proof”-which posits God as a First Cause in a universe governed by cause-and-effect-is not much better logically than other proofs, “it does have a certain appeal for physicists,” Weinberg admits. Since this is a discussion to which Dawkins gives especially short shrift, Weinberg is worth citing here:

“In essence, [the cosmological proof] argues that everything has a cause, and since this chain of causality cannot go on forever, it must terminate in a first cause, which we call God,” Weinberg explains. “The idea of an ultimate cause is deeply attractive and indeed the dream of elementary particle physics is to find the final theory at the root of all chains of explanation of what we see in nature. The trouble is that such a mathematical final theory would hardly be what anyone means by God. Who prays to quantum mechanics? The believer may justly argue that no theory of physics can be a first cause, since we would still wonder why nature is governed by that theory rather than some other. Yet, in the same sense, God cannot be a first cause either, for whatever our conception of God we could still wonder why the world is governed by that sort of God, rather than some other.” While the arguments from design and the ontological argument strike me as fairly decisively refuted, the cosmological argument, although it doesn’t provide much reason to think there’s a God, is still in play because our explanations of the origin of everything are still unsettled. Here, if anywhere, we’re close to what Allen Orr calls “matters of ultimate meaning that stand at the edge of intelligibility and that are among the most difficult to articulate.”

The other point where Weinberg differs with Dawkins is the respective weight to be given to the intransigence of Islam compared to Christianity. Weinberg sees considerable “weakening of religious certitude in the Christian West,” much of which can be laid at the door of science, “but this has not happened to anything like the same extent in the world of Islam. One finds in Islamic countries not only religious opposition to specific scientific theories, as occasionally in the West, but a widespread religious hostility to science itself… In the areas of science I know best, though there are talented scientists of Muslim origin working productively in the West, for forty years I have not seen a single paper by a physicist or astronomer in a Muslim country worth reading. This is despite the fact that in the ninth century, when science barely existed in Europe, the greatest centre of scientific research in the world was the House of Wisdom in Baghdad.”

Weinberg observes that “Dawkins treats Islam as just another deplorable religion, but there is a difference. The difference lies in the extent to which religious certitude lingers in the Islamic world, and in the harm it does. Richard Dawkins’ even-handedness is well-intentioned, but it is misplaced. I share his lack of respect for all religions, but in our times it is folly to disrespect them all equally.”

Perhaps the most interesting of the reviews of The God Delusion, certainly the most interesting philosophically, is that of Thomas Nagel (“The Problem with Atheism,” New Republic, Oct. 23, 2006). Nagel is the well-respected author of The View from Nowhere, an introductory philosophy primer called What Does It All Mean? and several collections of essays. He takes Dawkins’ blunt polemic pretty much in stride. Dawkins, he notes, “attacks religion with all the weapons at his disposal, and as a result the book is a very uneven collection of scriptural ridicule, amateur philosophy, historical and contemporary horror stories, anthropological speculations, and cosmological argument.” The various pyrotechnics “will certainly serve to attract attention,” Nagel notes, “but they are not what make the book interesting.”

Rather, “the important message is a theoretical one, about the reach of a certain kind of scientific explanation.” At the core of the book, “Dawkins sets out with care his position on a question of which the importance cannot be exaggerated: the question of what explains the existence and character of the astounding natural order we can observe in the universe we inhabit.” Nagel then traces out Dawkins’ refutation of the standard arguments for belief in God, concentrating on the “design” argument, and offering his own sophisticated critique of it, which I won’t attempt to reprise fully here. There are two parts to the reply to design. The positive part offers the theory of evolution by natural selection as one capable of explaining the existence of complex organisms like eyes. The negative part of the argument, Nagel says, “asserts that the hypothesis of design by God is useless… because it just pushes the problem back one step. In other words: who made God?”

It’s this part of the debate about design where Nagel thinks that Dawkins has made a mistake. “If the argument is supposed to show that a supremely adept and intelligent natural being, with a super-body and a super-brain, is responsible for the design and the creation of life on earth, then of course this ‘explanation’ is no advance on the phenomenon to be explained: if the existence of plants, animals and people requires an explanation, then the existence of such a super-being would require explanation for exactly the same reason.”

But this is not what the concept of God entails, Nagel argues. “God, whatever he may be, is not a complex physical inhabitant of the natural world. The explanation of his existence as a chance concatenation of atoms is not a possibility for which we must find an alternative, because that is not what anybody means by God,” says Nagel. Leave aside Nagel’s loose use of “anybody” here. Obviously, lots of people mean lots of things when they refer to God, including a substantial, personalized version, who answers his cellphone, even late at night. Matters are further complicated when we take aboard Christianity’s Jesus, who was indeed a “concatenation of atoms.” But Nagel’s point is this: “If the God hypothesis makes sense at all, it offers a different kind of explanation from those of physical science: purpose or intention of a mind without a body, capable nevertheless of creating and forming the entire physical world. The point of the hypothesis is to claim that not all explanation is physical, and that there is a mental, purposive or intentional explanation more fundamental than the basic laws of physics, because it explains even them.” If there is a God, it has to be the sort of thing outside of space and time whose existence can’t be explained by causation.

Nagel pushes on from there, and his thinking is fascinating. A much more extended version of it than his review of Dawkins is available in a recent essay: Thomas Nagel, “Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament,” Sept. 11, 2005 (which can be found online). I’m not sure that the arguments that Nagel explores are the sort that would be of interest to the readers at whom Dawkins is aiming, but of course it would be reassuring to other readers if Dawkins indicated that he was aware of such intellectual currents. Nagel’s argument is not a God hypothesis argument, but it is a challenge to and a consideration of the limits of scientific arguments. As a by-the-way, I should also note that a not dissimilar case from the pro-theism side is made by geneticist Francis Collins who led the Human Genome Project. Collins’ views are available in his book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (2006) and in his debate with Dawkins in Time magazine last year (the latter is available online).


Like many of Dawkins’ critics, friendly and hostile, I wish that The God Delusion were a better book, and I’ll explain in what ways I would want it better below, but the point I first want to emphasize is that it may be a good enough book for the moment. Dawkins, with his polemical approach and roughshod ways, has succeeded in putting atheism on the agenda in the public forum (even if only a “middlebrow” public forum) for the first time in years. And that’s important.

If hundreds of millions of people subscribe with certitude to beliefs that are likely false, and those beliefs have public consequences (for politics, morality, and other aspects of social life), then the act of challenging such beliefs is a public service. Though Steven Weinberg may be right that the degree of certitude about religious beliefs is weaker in the West than in the realm of Islam, nonetheless the most recent polls I’ve seen report that more than 80 per cent of Americans claim to believe in God without any doubts. Further, polls about evolutionary theory suggest that only about 35 per cent of U.S. citizens believe that it is a sound scientific theory. I don’t know if that adds up to delusionary thinking, but it certainly strikes me as cause for worry about the public mentality. But when Weinberg says, “I share [Dawkins’] lack of respect for all religions, but in our times it is folly to disrespect them all equally,” he has a point. In the response to Islam in discussions in the West, there has been a lot of tip-toeing, distinguishing our respect for the vaster portion of “good” Islam from our objection to the small minority of extremist “bad” Islam. This attitude results in a distorted reading of majoritarian Islam, I think, and avoids challenging the tenets of Islam at all.

In wishing that Dawkins had written a better book, I should note that better books about atheism already exist. The British philosopher Julian Baggini’s Atheism: A Very Short Introduction is one of them. Part of Oxford’s “very short introductions” series, Baggini’s book is more modest, temperate, brief, and philosophically sound than The God Delusion. But Baggini doesn’t command the public attention or star-power of Dawkins, his book is an even-tempered pamphlet rather than a blockbuster wrapped in a silver jacket, and accordingly it has sold modestly, rather than cracking best-seller lists.

The better book I’d like to see would be less about atheism and more about a-theism. That is, instead of insisting on atheism, I would put more emphasis on the argument that there aren’t any good reasons for believing in God, and there are lots of good reasons for withholding our belief in the supernatural. Let me be quick to point out that I’m not arguing for a third position, agnosticism, the view that it’s equally impossible to determine whether there is or isn’t a God and therefore one should suspend all judgment. It seems to me that the preponderance of evidence and conceptual thinking suggests that God is unlikely.

Generally, there are five arguments for believing in a God: 1) personal experience, 2) authority, 3) logic or the “ontological argument,” 4) design or the “teleological argument,” and 5) the “cosmological argument.” The briefest replies to those arguments are as follows:

1) Personal experiences of supernatural beings are notoriously unreliable, and many “religious experiences” can be reproduced by natural means in laboratories.

2) Authority can mean beliefs acquired through cultural indoctrination, but more often refers to documents like the Bible, Koran, or the Book of Mormon. All of these works are pre- or anti-scientific, produced by marginalised credulous groups, and unsubstantiated by any other evidence. They also contain, as Dawkins takes some pleasure in pointing out, a host of wacky assertions.

3) The ontological argument, invented by St. Anselm in medieval times, is a logical or semantic tongue-twister that says that the most perfect being we can conceive of must exist or else it wouldn’t be the most perfect being, therefore God exists. A fellow monk of Anselm’s pointed out that by that reasoning then there must also be a perfect island or a perfect whatever you can think of (say, a perfect hockey team). Others have pointed to the argument’s circularity-that in order to get to belief in a God in this way you pretty much have to start out with such a belief.

4) The design argument is the one that has garnered most contemporary attention because of the debate in the U.S. over teaching “Intelligent Design” theories alongside evolution in schools. But the real argument over design, that God designed life on earth (and the rest of the universe) was first successfully refuted by Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, and everything we’ve learned since from geology, archeology, and biology in the last century and a half supports Darwin’s theory. Evolution, with its extinctions, monstrosities, and quirky mutations, seems to demonstrate, as Dawkins has vigorously argued in his previous books, that life doesn’t appear to start out with neat design, but with development of life forms by natural selection in relation to specific environments, and that design is a late arrival on the set.

5) The classic cosmological argument, advanced by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, is largely a conceptual argument about causation, and it runs into, as Dawkins insists, the problem of what caused the First Cause. This is the only form of the argument that Dawkins attends to, but there are more modern forms of cosmological investigation that are more interesting and relevant, of the sort that interest Steven Weinberg. I think this is where, if anywhere, we can satisfy demands like those of Allen Orr to “engage religious thought in [a] serious way” and address “matters of ultimate meaning.” It’s also the place where Nagel’s challenge to “physical explanations” becomes pertinent.

The modern version of scientific cosmology focuses on the Big Bang theory of the origins of the universe. As writers such as Simon Singh in Big Bang (2004) and physicist Brian Greene in The Fabric of the Cosmos (2004) explain, we have a fairly good, albeit weird, evolutionary account of the universe since its inception about 14 billion years ago. An infinitismal “something” explodes, initiating both time and space (and eventually, us). The temptation, however, is to ask, What caused the Big Bang, or, What was there before the Big Bang? The technical answer is either Nothing, or We Don’t Know. But more important, can we even sensibly ask such a question? How can you ask about “before” when there is no time prior to the singular event that also “creates” time, and how can you ask about “there” or “where” before you have “space”?

In the inability to answer questions about the origin of the Big Bang or to even conceptualize questions about the origination of the “laws of nature,” there’s a conceptual opening. I don’t know if it’s an opening for a God, and if it is, it doesn’t, as Weinberg points out, seem much like the God of the major monotheisms or even the God who is often effusively praised by wide receivers in football games, but it’s an opening for “something.” In the vastness of time and space, and in light of the recognition of our relative insignificance and mortal conclusion, you can see how someone might be tempted by such a “something,” and might further be tempted to think of it as a “Higher Something.” I don’t think such thinking yields anything more than 17th and 18th century Deism, but Deism is at least the most rational and least offensive of the theisms.

It’s this sort of thinking that leads to suggestions like that of Thomas Nagel when he says, “If the God hypothesis makes sense at all, it offers a different kind of explanation from those of physical science: purpose or intention of a mind without a body, capable nevertheless of creating and forming the entire physical world.” The problem with such a hypothesis is that there’s not any substantial evidence or any good reason to think that it might be true. Sure, it’s possible that “not all explanation is physical, and that there is a mental, purposive or intentional explanation more fundamental than the basic laws of physics, because it explains even them,” but what gives us grounds for thinking so other than our inability to explain ultimate matters?

Although Dawkins touches on the case for atheism, I find Julian Baggini’s account to be more satisfyingly explicit. The bottom line of the argument against theism is that there simply isn’t strong evidence for a God or anything else supernatural, and in fact, there’s quite a bit of what might be called “negative” evidence suggesting the absence of evidence for God, or simply the non-existence of God. On the positive side of Baggini’s case for atheism, there’s overwhelming evidence for the existence of the natural world and the mortality of human beings, and no evidence for anything else. For example, everything we know about consciousness suggests that minds, thoughts, and sentences are produced by material, finite brains, and nothing leads us to think that minds are a feature of souls that continue to exist after our deaths.

A lot of the debate, pro and con, as the paragraph above suggests, hinges on notions of evidence, a philosophic issue that Dawkins doesn’t explicitly address. What constitutes evidence, and especially good evidence, Baggini admits, “is a big issue, but the key general principle is that evidence is stronger if it is available to inspection by more people on repeated occasions; and worse if it is confined to the testimony of a small number of people on limited occasions.” Baggini argues that “all the strong evidence tells in favour of atheism, and only weak evidence tells against it. In any ordinary case, this would be enough to establish that atheism is true. The situation is comparable to that of water freezing at zero degrees centigrade; all the strong evidence suggests it does. Only the weak evidence of anecdote, myth, hearsay, and illusionists tells against it.” In the case of theism, the concrete evidence is uniformly weak: it ranges from miraculously weeping statues of saints and the textual claims of biblical books, to near-death experiences and psychics who claim to be able to contact the dead. What evidence there is for God, the afterlife, heaven and miracles is all far from “strong evidence” available to inspection by everybody on repeated occasions.

One sort of argument frequently heard in theistic debates concerns the inconvenient refusal of God to make a definitive appearance. The theistic reply to this rude fact is often the invocation of the principle that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Sometimes this is couched in the form of a challenge: “Well, you can’t prove that God doesn’t exist, can you?” The answer to that is, No, you can’t prove that God doesn’t exist, but people who don’t believe God exists don’t have to prove God doesn’t exist; the burden of proof for the existence of something as extraordinary as God rests with the claimant. Or, as Baggini puts it, “Indeed, it is hard to see what other evidence there could be for something not being there other than the failure to find any evidence that it is there. Something which does not exist leaves no mark, so it can only be an absence of marks of its existence that can provide evidence for its non-existence.” Further, this sort of absence “really is strong evidence for absence.” Admittedly, this discussion of evidence doesn’t deal with Nagel’s idea of explanations beyond our ordinary notions of evidence and reasons, but frankly, I don’t know what to do about that sort of claim except to shrug and admit, almost anything is possible.

It’s not completely fair to say that Dawkins refuses to engage religion in a serious way, but I understand what his critics are pointing at. Dawkins does talk about, in both his opening and concluding chapters, the wonder and beauty of it all, but he insists that our appreciation of it can’t be supported by prosthetic deities, and he’s not inclined to engage in the minute or transcendental claims of theology. I think a more modest and temperate argument, one that emphasizes that there aren’t any good reasons for believing in God, ought to be more sympathetic to the spiritual impulse.

Though I don’t agree with believers, I have considerable empathy for their yearnings. The prospect of living in a purposeless universe as a self-conscious animal whose end is mere mortality strikes me as a scary proposition. If belief in God entails weird propositions, it should also be admitted that evolution and Big Bang physics, although we have good reason to think both are true, are also very weird truths. It’s easy to see why people would want to believe in a deity, even as one is arguing that there aren’t any good reasons to believe in God. I don’t see why we wouldn’t want to make that admission; resistance to doing so strikes me as a kind of inhuman coldness.

Similarly, the historical ubiquity of religion strikes me as fairly natural for the kind of evolving creatures we are. Dawkins has a substantial chapter on the “roots of religion” in which he offers a rather complicated account based on evolutionary psychology. I think the answer is evolutionary, but simpler. Given the kind of beings we’ve evolved to be, it seems reasonable that our hypothesizing would go beyond what might be just beyond the immediate horizon (food, mates, predators) and extend to a natural desire to want to understand “what it all means,” and that in the course of the development of our intelligence religious explanations would come into play. As we know more, it also seems reasonable that at a certain historical point, atheistic explanations would come into play.

In addition to discussing religion’s spread over time and geography, Dawkins has a similar chapter about whether we can be moral without God, and again he offers a complex account rooted in evolutionary psychology, an interesting but still speculative sub-discipline. Once more, this over-complicates matters. I think the ethical issue is relatively straightforward. It’s simply not the case that if there isn’t a God, social chaos will ensue. Humans are social animals who prefer to live with each other and are likely, in the course of evolution, to recognize that in order to do so, whether or not there’s a God, they have to devise some rules, such as not arbitrarily bopping each other over the head, and institutions to support those rules. The reason we can be moral without God is that we are capable of moral discourse. Of course, there’s no guarantee that people, left to their own devices, will produce a democratic, egalitarian moral order, but then, people left to God’s devices have produced more than their share of moral tyrannies.

At the outset of his book, Dawkins offers a little peptalk about how to be a happy atheist. So do other advocates of atheism. Baggini, for instance, devotes a chapter of his book to meaningful meanings of life for atheists. But I think that’s only part of the story. Both Dawkins and Baggini do their best to put a good face on the prospect of life in a universe without a pre-ordained purpose, life which ends in death. I’m more inclined to think, as other philosophers have put it, that there’s also a “tragic sense” to life. The tragedy of death can be mitigated by various experiences, in art, eros, mountain-climbing, the creation of non-violent civil arrangements and whatever else, all of which might add up to a “good life,” but I see no good reason to deny that it all occurs within a context of senseless mortality. Given that we’ve become more self-conscious about the absurdity of death in recent centuries, I suppose that ought to incline us to be more sympathetic to various efforts to extend life, if not necessarily to embark upon the sort of immortality project that futurist Ray Kurzweil describes in his recent book, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (2005).

Finally, there are a couple of issues where I find Dawkins’ intransigence puzzling. There’s the matter of the political record of theism and atheism in power. Dawkins is dodgy on this issue. He’s vehement in discussing the harms that religion has caused. But when it comes to accounting for tyrants who happened not to be believers, such as Hitler or Stalin, Dawkins tends to twist and turn. Well, they weren’t really atheists, or they weren’t atheists when they were being murderous tyrants, or whatever. I think it would be a lot more straightforward to admit that both faith-based politicians and anti-clerical or atheistic politicians have been tyrants. Being an atheist political leader or an atheist society doesn’t guarantee good government. What produces good government is good politics, and what good politics are and how we decide is another argument altogether.

The other puzzling issue is the one Weinberg flags, that of Dawkins’ blanket condemnation of all religions without discrimination. I don’t see either the intellectual point of his move here, or its strategic purpose. It’s true that the religions to be castigated are not merely those with the most bizarre, cult-like beliefs. Broad swaths of Roman Catholicism and mainstream American Protestantism as well as much of Islam deserve vigorous challenge. But at the same time, there are denominations whose beliefs are intellectually substantial and whose public consequences are not harmful. Why insist that such believers are equally delusional?

Well, that’s my idea of a better book about atheism. But I’m moved by Richard Dawkins’ public avowal and his success in putting the subject on the public agenda. Of late, I’ve been increasingly struck by the notion that I’ve lived most of my life immersed in lies. The lies range from the trivial but incessant pounding of commercial advertisements to the familiar mid-level political chicanery to the vastest transcendental claims of religion. In all the noise, both white and dark, it’s almost impossible to think. In its way, the value of Dawkins’ campaign is to encourage us, borrowing Vaclav Havel’s phrase, to “live in truth.”


Vancouver, Feb. 17, 2007. Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano College in North Vancouver, B.C.


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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