I’ve been reading reviews of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion over the last few days. There are a surprising number of them. Most of them, as is to be expected, no doubt, are written by religious believers, and are very negative, not to say contemptuous. Dawkins is called everything from lazy, to sloppy, poorly researched, sophomoric, careless, offensive and wrong. Quite astonishing is the vitriolic denunciation of a book that is accused, by so many who denounce it so vitriolically, of being itself vitriolic! Since I have decided to read the book once again, having read it only once when it first came out in 2006, I will consider, in a later post, whether The God Delusion is, as claimed, in poor taste, offensive, strident, or vitriolic. This book, after all, is the fons et origo of the New Atheist movement. Sam Harris’s book, The End of Faith, was the first major success of a book written from an atheist point of view and published by a mainstream publisher, but Richard Dawkins’ book provided the momentum for a movement which is now, because of its forthrightness, a major influence in the world. So important has the new atheism become that popes and archbishops are convinced that it is a danger to faith, and have established programmes to combat it. Despite the fact that many less bold and forthright atheists find the new atheism too confrontational and prefer to remain on friendly terms with religion, it is only since atheism hit the best seller lists that atheism itself has become almost a mainstream phenomenon. At the same time that Alister McGrath wrote and published his slight — and often inaccurate — study on what he thought was The Twilight of Atheism, the new atheism was already in gestation. Far from being in its death throes, as McGrath thought, atheism was preparing to become a major cultural phenomenon.
What I want to do, then, is to look more closely — possibly over a number of posts — at the book which lies at the heart of the new atheist phenomenon, The God Delusion. I will do this mainly by considering the book’s detractors, though, as I say, I am now in the process of reading it once again, and reading it, this time, more closely than I did before. But I want to look at it through the eyes of its critics, in the conviction that by the weaknesses or strengths of their arguments, we will be able best to judge what is most effective about the book itself. This may seem a strange way to go about it; however, it is important to see that the strength of the book — which was at the top of the best seller list for so long — does not lie primarily in whether or not Dawkins is a professional philosopher or theologian, or whether his research led him into the deepest and most arcane areas of either the philosophy of religion or Christian theology, but in the fact that it caught a cultural wave which drew a whole social-intellectual movement along in its train. So it will be important to note why, in fact, the criticisms of this book have not bit very deep into its continuing influence.
I am going to begin my survey of Dawkins’ critics by looking at Alvin Plantinga’s critique in the magazine Books and Culture: A Christian Review. It is entitled “The Dawkins Confusion.” The importance of this review lies in the reputation of its author. Although PZ Myers says that “Alvin Plantinga gives philosophy a bad name” — an assessment with which I agree, by the way — he is, perhaps, the foremost Christian philosopher writing in English, so, when he says that “one shouldn’t look to this book for evenhanded and thoughtful commentary,” we must take it that it comes from the best that Christian philosophy can provide. And when he goes on to say that “the proportion of insult, ridicule, spleen, and vitriol [in The God Delusion] is astounding,” we must take it that he has weighed his words carefully, and considers this judgement to be evenhanded and thoughtful.
Plantinga begins his review by quoting Dawkins’ description of the god of the Old Testament. It is worthwhile repeating those words here:
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. 
Plantinga comments: “Dawkins seems to have chosen God as his sworn enemy,” ignoring the fact that he has just quoted Dawkins to the effect that this nasty character is completely fictional. However, it is only fair to point out that biblical scholars and theologians are not ignorant of the problem that the character of Yahweh creates for them. William Lane Craig may accept with equanimity the fact that the Israelites, in conquering Canaan (a conquest which perhaps never took place), are commanded by this god to slaughter every living thing in their path, but the genocidal rage of the Hebrew god is not easily dismissed by those who have any concern for questions of peace and justice. Stories such as those in which the Hebrews are commanded by their god to consecrate to destruction every living thing that lies in their path, whether they are historically reliable or not, establish a pattern of destructive and violent behaviour, xenophobic and cruel, which still has the power to arouse the basest instincts of cruelty and violence in its devotees. Books such as Regina Schwartz’s The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism, or Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer’s Is Religion Killing Us: Violence in the Bible and the Quran, give ample evidence that the violence which runs like a trail of blood through the Christian as well as the Muslim holy books is a social problem of enormous proportions. I would go farther. I suggest that, so long as books such as the Bible and the Qu’ran are considered as sacred and apart, they will continue to have a baleful influence upon relations between nations and peoples. The nasty character of the biblical or qu’ranic god, fictional to its core as it might be, still has the power to arouse in people almost maniacally murderous passions which too often spill over into mayhem and murder. To anyone who has read these books, Dawkins’ description is not only accurate, but inadequate to capture the depths of evil which religion is often used to camouflage.
Plantinga goes on, after pointing out that Dawkins is not a philosopher, to suggest that “much of the philosophy that he purveys is at best jejune.”
You might say [he goes on] that some of his forays into philosophy are at best sophomoric, but that would be unfair to sophomores; the fact is (grade inflation aside), many of his arguments would receive a failing grade in a sophomore philosophy class.
That, it seems to me, qualifies as vitriolic criticism, which is curious coming from someone who criticises criticism of precisely this sort. He also accuses Dawkins of adopting an “arrogant, smarter-than-thou tone,” the precursor of so much of the tone-trolling in the blogosphere, taking new atheists to task for their tone, regardless of the reliability of their arguments or the justness of their concerns. You will not be surprised to find out that it is at this point that Plantinga begins his more substantive criticisms of Dawkins’ book.
The first argument that he addresses is Dawkins’ claim that, if god did exist, s/he/it would be enormously complex and therefore very improbable. Plantinga says, mistakenly, that the argument is in Chapter 3, but it is really in Chapter 4, “Why there is almost certainly no god”. The argument is summed up on page 114:
However statistically improbable the entity you seek to explain by invoking a designer, the designer himself has got to be at least as improbable.
The point of the argument is this. Those who use the argument from design to prove the existence of god (to wit, the designer), must explain why the existence of a designer is less improbable than what we start off with, namely, the thing that gives all the appearance of design. Take Paley’s watch found on the heath.
In crossing a heath, [the good archdeacon supposes] suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for any thing I knew to the contrary, it had lain there for ever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that, for any thing I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for the stone? why is it not as admissible in the second case, as in the first? For this reason, and for no other, viz. that when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive (what we could not discover in the stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose … [and after considering the watch in some detail] the inference, we think, is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker …, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer: who comprehended its construction and designed its use. [Natural Theology, 12th edition, pp. 2-4]
Now, stop and think. Assuming there was a designer, would the designer of the watch not be assumed to be equally as complex as the watch? All the designed things that we know of have been designed by a designer much more complex than the designed things themselves. And the improbability of this very complex originating thing existing must be just as great, and presumably greater, than the probability of the thing itself.
With wide-eyed innocence Plantinga asks the question: “But why does Dawkins think that God is complex? And why does he think that the more complex something is, the less probable it is?” And then he immediately digresses to talk about Dawkins’ book The Blind Watchmaker. Let’s consider that for a moment. Here’s what he says:
[In The Blind Watchmaker Dawkins] argues that the scientific theory of evolution shows that our world has not been designed — by God or anyone else. This thought is trumpeted by the subtitle of the book: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design.
After delivering himself of that little bit of hyperbole, with the apparent innocence of a child Plantinga wonders why this should be so. How does evolution from simpler forms of life show that the universe was not designed? How does Dawkins conclude that “the evidence of evolution reveals that evolution is unplanned, unguided, unorchestrated by any intelligent being?”
Well, the simple reason is the same as Laplace’s response to Napoleon. “Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis,” that is, the hypothesis of God intervening to correct the paths of the planets. The evolutionary biologist need only point to the facts. The whole system works without assuming that there is a designing intelligence anywhere in the process. It is, as Dennett points out in great detail in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, an algorithmic process, acting quite mechanically and without forethought.
Now, here’s where Plantinga goes off course. He assumes that Dawkins’ argument is a philosophical one, and he sets out to show that the argument is invalid. Pay close attention. Dawkins starts of with a premise, says Plantinga, like this one: “We know of no irrefutable objections to its being biologically possible that all of life has come to be by way of unguided Darwinian processes.” And from this he concludes, without explaining the move, that “all of life has come to be by way of unguided Darwinian processes.” Plantinga comments on “the striking distance, here, between premise and conclusion,” and even goes on to ridicule Dawkins:
Philosophers sometimes propound invalid arguments (I’ve propounded a few myself [he admits gallantly]); few of those arguments display the truly colossal distance between premise and conclusion sported by this one.
Well, but that’s not the way that Dawkins argues. It’s not a matter of premises and conclusion; it’s simply a matter of scientific explanation. The processes of evolution need no designer to explain the evolution of organisms, just as the planets don’t need a god to intervene to make sure that they don’t spin out of their orbits.
So Plantinga entirely misunderstands how science works. He thinks he can reduce it to philosophical argumentation. He forgets that premises which are unnecessary in order to explain scientific phenomena do not form a part of scientific theories. All sorts of things might be thought to be happening in the background. Gremlins might cause breakdown in automobiles. But no one who took his car to a garage would be content with gremlins as an explanation. In the end, following this line of reasoning, Plantinga accuses Dawkins of begging the question. Here is Dawkins argument as Plantinga interprets it:
1. If theism is false, then evolution is unguided.
2. Theism is false.
3. Therefore, evolution is unguided (1 & 2 by modus ponens).
But the argument doesn’t work this way at all. It is not a logical or philosophical argument, but a scientific one. What Darwin’s idea of natural selection did was to dispense with the need for a creator to explain the existence of apparent design. This presupposition was simply no longer necessary. Does this say that there isn’t a designer? No, people like the pope and Plantinga are doubtless entitled to go on thinking that, despite everything, the process is attended by a designing intelligence, but the effects are just the same whether you assume this or not, and if you do assume it you’re no longer doing science. In other words, things will remain as they are; the religious believer simply adds an irrelevant explanatory hypothesis which is not a part of science.
So, what about the wild improbability of there being a creator, since the creator must be incredibly complex in order to create such complex things as a universe with all its varieties of stars and galaxies, as well as the complexity of life, wherever there is life in the universe? Here we come to the more airy-fairy point in Plantinga’s argument. He asks straightaway why we should think of god as complex. Classical theology assumes that god is a simple being in which essence and existence are identical, a being, as Plantinga says, in which “there is no distinction of thing and property, actuality and potentiality, essence and existence, and the like.” And since God is a spirit, Plantinga says, not material, it therefore “has no parts.” However, it needs to be asked at this point what a spirit is. Does Plantinga know what a spirit is? The Anglican 39 Articles defines god as a being “without body, parts or passions.” (Article 1) But does this really help? People like Plantinga speak about god as though there is no difficulty identifying god and speaking of god’s nature, but how does he know? What does it mean to speak of a being without body, parts or passions, a being in which actuality and potentiality, essence and existence are identical?
Plantinga admits, for the sake of argument, that god is complex, since being omniscient implies that god knows a great many things, and that that knowledge must itself be complex. Minds seem to be complex repositories of ideas, memories, plans, purposes, hopes, fears, and a great many other mental things. So, let’s accept for the time being, he says, that minds are complex, and that god is complex in this fashion. Still, Plantinga objects, this would not make god improbable, since the improbability that Dawkins is talking about is the improbability of complexly ordered physical things. Ordered material complexity — such as a universe — may be highly improbable, but why does it follow that the existence of god is improbable? In fact, Plantinga says, trundling out some theological presuppositions, god is maximally probable, and then he goes on:
So if Dawkins proposes that God’s existence is improbable, he owes us an argument for the conclusion that there is no necessary being with the attributes of God — an argument that doesn’t just start from the premise that materialism is true.
Now, this essay is already getting a bit too long, and we haven’t even touched on fine tuning yet! However, according to the modal arguments, god is either necessary or impossible. (See Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification) Martin points out that “[t]he theistic proofs presume that the concept of God is coherent; they cannot demonstrate it.” (89) So Dawkins does not owe Plantinga an argument showing that there is no necessary being with the attributes of God. Indeed, it is very doubtful whether either the argument for the necessary being or the impossibility of god will really convince anyone, since gods are not used in this way. These are secondary accretions, and take their place as an additional dimension of religious life for those who are interested in analysing and describing the metaphysical background of everyday religious practices. And, in any event, as Plantinga already knows, an argument purporting to demonstrate the non-existence of something is bound to fail.
Plantinga goes on in his review to address a number of other issues, none of which seem very compelling to me. The fine tuning argument, I believe, is doomed to failure. And Plantinga’s argument that without theism there is no reason to believe that we can know anything is just silly.
From a theistic point of view, we’d expect [says Plantinga] that our cognitive abilities would be (for the most part, and given certain qualifications and caveats) reliable.
On the basis of materialism, we should, he suggests, think quite the opposite:
It’s as likely, given unguided evolution, that we live in a sort of dream world as that we actually know something about ourselves and our world.
But this is really quite silly, and Plantinga, one wants to say, must know this. The truth is that, without great discipline, and constant checking and rechecking, our cognitive abilities just are very fallible. The better they are, of course, the more successful we should be in staying alive. Living in a dream world where we knew nothing would not promote survivability, so evolution doesn’t imply what Plantinga thinks it does. Nevertheless, our cognitive abilities are limited and fallible. Why else, one wants to ask, does Plantinga believe so many weird things? In fact, it took many thousands of years before the scientific project really got off the ground. Now that it has, however, human knowledge is growing exponentially. The truth is that evolution provided us with a great many cognitive skills, all of which are very fallible, and have only been made a successful basis for continuing progress in knowledge in only one civilisation, which is now global. So Plantinga is both right and wrong. Our evolutionary origins should impress upon us the fallibility of our abilities, but if the acquiring of knowledge itself is an evolutionary phenomenon, as Susan Blackmore suggests in her book The Meme Machine, while we will not see a simple progression towards more and more reliable knowledge and understanding, we should see progress towards such knowledge, and this is, in fact, what we do see. I conclude that Plantinga’s attack on Dawkins largely fails. If there are serious weaknesses, Plantinga didn’t spot them.