One of the most astonishing phenomena of the last few months was the Judgement Day predicted by Harold Camping for 21st May 2011, which would begin with earthquakes at 6 pm in one part of the world, and would continue with a rolling sequence of earthquakes, following the sun, throughout the day, finally engulfing the whole earth. What is astonishing is not that some deluded fool should have made this prediction. Doomsday predictions are a dime a dozen along the fringes of fundamentalist Christian faith worldwide. What is astonishing is that it should have been so widely publicised and so widely believed, even to the point of selling one’s possessions to await the foredoomed end of life on earth, and translation to a better and more holy place where the faithful would be rewarded. Contemplating with some glee the suffering of those left behind was part of a package deal of end of times rewards for the faithful. But how did so many believe it in the first place?
If this doesn’t show how deeply deluded religion is, then it is hard to know what would. And yet, without any doubt, people who occupy central positions amongst the majority Christian population of the United States think of Harold Camping as a deluded fool, and those who heeded his eschatological warnings as victims of a hoax. And this, despite the fact that it was Jesus himself who started this particular ball rolling. The only difference, we are to understand, between Harold Camping and his deluded followers, and “reasonable” Christians, is that the latter heed the words of Jesus, that neither he nor anyone else knows beforehand the day of his coming. He will come, we are told, like a thief in the night, and no one knows the hour of his coming, so we should always be ready when he comes. Of course, most believers pay no attention to these apocalyptic sayings of the risen man they address as Lord. Yet the apostle Paul never forgot that the day was soon to arrive, and, though believers had already started to die before the expected Day of the Lord had come, and he had to set the minds and hearts of the faithful at rest because of this, Paul still expected the coming of the Lord to occur during his lifetime.
Later Christians, clearly, were in a bit of a cleft stick so far as the Second Coming was concerned. Yes, of course, they lived expectantly, but life went on, and you can’t live on air, so it was necessary, not only to sell one’s goods and hold them for the common benefit of all while awaiting the end, but to find some kind of remunerative occupation. People needed to go on working, and some kind of established order in the growing church was necessary. The result, for the scriptures, was the inclusion of the letters — given the names of apostles, though no one really knows by whom they were written — which are now called pastoral: the letters to Timothy, and the letters of Peter, John, James and Jude. The pastoral epistles were clearly written only after the original shine had been taken off the eschatological fervour of the first Christians by the plodding, unremarkable passage of time. Order and organisation was now necessary, and planning for the future, and the Interimsethik of Jesus and Paul was no longer sufficient guidance for a growing community either. The original Christian ethic was understood to be for the interim between the death of Jesus and his coming again, and since he didn’t come — while it was still necessary to be ready to greet Jesus when he comes again, and so, like the provident virgins, believers must keep their lamps supplied with oil and the wicks trimmed — a new, more ordered, understanding of Christian ethics needed to take the place of the improvident values taught by Jesus. Much of this new Christian ethic was borrowed unblushingly from the Stoics and Epicureans, though few Christians now recall how dependent the so-called “Judeo-Christian” ethic was (and still is) on classical sources (See Wayne Meeks, The Origins of Christian Morality. Yale, 1993).
This may seem to be a strange way to begin the next installment of my commentary on The God Delusion and its critics, but it is, I think, important to see that these things are not discrete parts of an indiscriminate collection of ideas, but that they fit together into a whole. So, Dawkins’ argument in the chapter “Why there is almost certainly no God” cannot be kept separate from the other things that he has to say, and, indeed, argument for the claim that there is almost certainly no god is continued in the chapters that follow. Dawkins begins by calling god’s existence into question by using his argument to improbability. The status of this argument is still disputed, but I think Richard Norman is right in holding that the argument is very powerful. As he explains in his article “Holy Communion“:
[Dawkins] argues that whatever the explanation of the initial conditions may be, God is not a good explanation, because the existence of a hugely powerful intelligence who knew all the physical constants and scientific laws is even more difficult to explain than the things it is supposed to account for.
In response, philosophers like Richard Swinburne claim that it is a question of simplicity, and that god, unlike the physical conditions of the universe, is a simple substance, and therefore a superior candidate as an explanatory principle. But Norman replies:
Dawkins rightly points out that this is a confusion. The explanation in terms of a divine creator may be simply stated, but the entity that is supposed to do the explaining is a highly complex entity, not a “simple” one.
I agree. However — and this is the point of the present post — even if we are not quite sure that the argument is a good one, and any argument at this level of generality is liable to raise all sorts of questions, we are not left simply with this argument to fall back on. This is where the subsequent chapters of The God Delusion are vital to Dawkins’ argument. But — a caveat first. Dawkins is not a philosopher, nor is he a student of religion, an anthropologist or a psychologist. So, the whole book is written, aside from the parts of it that include reference to Dawkins’ own field of evolutionary biology, by an amateur speaking (largely) to amateurs. Not only that, but the book is written in a deliberately non-technical style so that it will be a help to quite ordinary folk who are trying to sort out where they stand on the question of religious belief. It is, you might say, atheist apologetics. So, we will expect, not only that Dawkins will reach out beyond his own academic specialty to address issues where he is not an expert. This is true already, of course, since he has discussed many questions, up to this point in the book, about which he is not an expert, and his detractors have not been slow to point this out.
Steven Weinberg’s response to this is perhaps the best one. Weinberg, a Noble laureate for his work in physics, wrote for the Times Literary Supplement, what is perhaps the most positive review of The God Delusion (published on 17 January 2007) — now available here. This was followed up by a number of letters in response to the original review, to which Dr. Weinberg responded in substantial, and, in many cases, decisive detail. This is still available on the Times site here. In the review itself Weinberg raises the question of amateurism:
I find it disturbing that Thomas Nagel in the New Republic dismisses Dawkins as an “amateur philosopher”, while Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books sneers at Dawkins for his lack of theological training. 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 folk? It is like saying that only political scientists are justified in expressing views on politics. Eagleton’s judgement is particularly inappropriate; it is like saying that no one is entitled to judge the validity of astrology who cannot cast a horoscope.
That is a decisive response to “Dawkins is only an amateur”, for the truth is that what he is discussing is religion, and if the only people who can speak about religion are the experts, then, since religion is an intimate part of the lives of billions of human beings, their lives must perforce be subject to the rule of experts. This is what Sayyid Qutb thought, that only the pure should be citizens of a renewed Islamicised Egypt. This is what the pope thinks, that only the hierarchy has the right to pronounce on issues of morality and religion. Steve Fuller sticks his funny bone into the correspondence, suggesting that, since Weinberg thinks that amateurs should be permitted to express their opinion regarding religion and philosophy, it is
Too bad that, in his last two books, he did not extend the same charity to historians, philosophers and sociologists who offered non-expert commentary on the nature of physics. We might then have avoided the ongoing Science wars.
Of course, the worth of a non-scientist like Fuller commenting on technical scientific issues such as the ”conflict” between ”intelligent design” and evolution was illustrated by the disastrous ”evidence” he offered at the Kitzmiller-Dover trial, one of the most embarrassing displays of amateurishness on public record. But science is like watch-making. It takes years of apprenticeship and supervision to achieve reasonable expertise. This does not mean that amateurs cannot comment on science. Many do. Science journalists often have a background in science, but are not practicing scientists as a rule, and yet they comment in detail, sometimes, on the achievements of science. To be able to assess the results of scientific consensus at the cutting edge of experimental physics or biology, however, takes a great deal more expertise than most well-informed amateurs possess.
The same thing, no doubt, goes for philosophy too, though, interestingly enough, not necessarily for theology. To join in as a participant in theological discussion requires a familiarity with the terms used and the positions that various theologians have taken. This, no doubt, is a kind of knowledge, though a very peculiar kind. Indeed, many theologians have abandoned the quest for truth about god, since god is acknowledged to be impenetrable mystery, and have replaced this with a search for the Truth (with a capital ‘T’) about human life. One theologian states plainly that
God is a functional name for the who or what on which one wagers one’s lived-meaning. [W. Paul Jones, Theological Worlds, 13]
But, later, he points out that, in order to ascertain the truth of one’s theological world — that is, the realm of one’s lived-meaning – we must begin
… with the awareness that truth, defined functionally, is multiple, relative to the particularity of the subject and to one’s defining context. Within that pluralism, what functions as God becomes what one can trust without betrayal, and obey without idolatry. … Thus a theological proposition is true, Gordon Kaufman insists, “if it somehow enhances human life, leading to its fuller realization.” 
(The reader will not have missed the fact that this simply cannot be an account of what is true.) I don’t plan to pursue this here, but suggestions like this, which at one time permitted me to retain “faith” at a time when I questioned most of what went to make up the content of the Christian belief system, are clearly no longer raising questions of truth at all, even though they speak the language of truth. And just as a footnote to this, though it is true that technical philosophy sometimes requires a great deal of technical expertise in various forms of logic, Bayesian probability, etc., philosophy is still, as Socrates held, the love of wisdom, and no one is excluded from the demand to exercise their critical faculties in order to make one’s own life (as well as the decisions that one makes in life) one that is reasonably based on a critical understanding of the world, one’s relationships with others, and the demands that the truth and morality make on one’s choices. There is simply no reason to hide philosophy away in technical journals, and every reason why philosophers should seek to make themselves understood outside the academy, a trend in philosophy which has become more urgent over the last few decades when religion has been making resurgent demands on people’s obedience, while denying with even more emphasis the value of critical (secular) thought.
All this, so far, by means of prolegomena to what I really want to say in this post! It’s very easy simply to dismiss Dawkins’ efforts in chapter 4 on the improbability of the existence of god, and then treat the rest of the book as incidental. But it’s not. If god’s existence is, as Dawkins claims, very improbable, as I think it is, then the question, Why are people so religious?, becomes a pressing one, and the answers to that question, even if still disputable, as Dawkins suggests (see 188), are part of the argument for god’s improbability. If we can provide plausible answers to the question of the existence of religion, and belief in gods, then we have given further reasons to believe that god does not exist. While it is true that, by themselves, the argument that religion is, say, the product of the evolutionary development of the human brain, for example, its tendency to ascribe agency to things, as a matter of survival, this does not show that religion can simply be reduced to this evolved tendency; nevertheless, if it is highly improbable that there is a god, then the fact that human development tends to skew our response to things in the direction of ascriptions of agency to things which do not possess agency, then this, if it explains aspects of the human tendency to believe in gods, is further support for the argument to improbability. I do not think that Dawkins’ critics recognise this sufficiently.
Religion claims to explain a great deal about human life. It explains, they say, why we think life is valuable. It explains why we obey moral laws. It explains why we ascribe special value to human life, and why murder is so heinous. But if it is highly improbable that there is a god, as Dawkins claims and argues, then the fact that we can explain the meaning of life, the value of life and morality, as well as our belief in gods, by other means which dispense with gods entirely, then these facts about human life — as I believe they are — further support the argument to the improbability of god’s existence. For if god’s existence is antecedently improbable, then the fact that we can explain human life naturalistically is not reductionist, as so many religious apologists claim, but explanatory. The later chapters of Dawkins’ book are central to its main argument.