I want to come back to my series of comments on reviews of The God Delusion. There is an almost unending number of them, and some of them can be ignored; but it would be unwise to ignore one by Tom Nagel, for instance, since his standing as a philosopher is very high, and issues that he has with The God Delusion must be met, or the criticisms will, in a sense, stand by default. I have not seen anywhere where Nagel’s concerns have been considered, so I will try to do so here. It needs to be said at the outset that Nagel’s concerns have considerable merit, and cannot be so easily dismissed as other criticisms that have been made of Dawkins’ refutation of religion. In the end, however, I think it will be clear that his main concerns are not warranted.
Nagel’s review was published in The New Republic shortly after The God Delusion was published and is entitled “The Fear of Religion.” One of its strongest contentions may be Nagel’s point that, since Dawkins is not, in The God Delusion, working within the range of his scientific expertise,
The God Delusion lacks the superb instructive lucidity of his books on evolutionary theory, such as The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, and Climbing Mount Improbable.
In fact, this is at once the strongest criticism of The God Delusion, as well as directing us to a clearer understanding of Dawkins’ purpose in writing The God Delusion than most reviewers have achieved. As Nagel says:
In his new book, he 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 scientific argument. Dawkins wants both to dissuade believers and to embolden atheists.
That seems to me to be very fair-minded. It would be wrong to claim for The God Delusion a sophistication that it does not possess, a sophistication to which it does not aspire, and which would have, in the event, lost Dawkins the attention that he sought — and found! This is important. Had he taken Terry Eagleton’s line, and discussed Duns Scotus and Aquinas with appropriate attention to argumentative detail, Dawkins would have lost almost all his intended readers at the first post. But by treating Aquinas’ “five ways” with casual contempt, and the ontological argument with open derision, Dawkins carries out his stated purpose of showing appropriate disrespect for forms of believing in which evidence is neither demanded nor provided.
William Lane Craig, by the way, may consider these arguments as evidence, but this is simply a misunderstanding of the requirements of evidence. For instance, in the so-called Kalam cosmological argument, the claim that whatever begins to be must have a cause, is not evidence for anything. It is an apriori claim, and, even if it were successful, it could not determine what the nature of that cause must be, nor how the cause operated, or why. So, the jump to the Christian god at this point is unwarranted: there is simply no evidence. The religious cannot say more — and obviously even less — than physicists, for they just don’t know. Indeed, the argument should end on an expression of ignorance, but the religious, who think they already have the answers in their own faith commitments, plug their own beliefs into the argument at this point without noticing that the argument itself gives them no warrant for doing so.
But there is more to it than that, and this is not often remarked upon. To have joined the lists with philosophical theology, taking the standard arguments for the existence of god with the seriousness which experts in philosophical theology naturally accord them, Dawkins would already have conceded the field. By refusing to take the arguments with the seriousness the religious accord them Dawkins is in fact carrying out his intention, as Nagel says, “to overturn the convention of respect toward religion that belongs to the etiquette of modern civilization,” just as Eagleton, in his review of Dawkins, uses the same technique to reaffirm this convention. Nagel tells us that he found “these attempts at philosophy … particularly weak.” Fair enough. From a philosopher’s point of view, they are weak. However, it is only fair to add that these arguments long ago lost whatever force they might once have been thought to have, and casually dismissing them has the effect of carrying out one of Dawkins’ main aims: to overturn the convention of respect for religion, which, as Nagel points out, he does by
persistently violating the convention, and being as offensive as possible, and pointing out with gleeful outrage at absurd or destructive religious beliefs and practices.
Did Dawkins simply feel obliged to include something about natural theology, which is why it ended up being inadequate and superficial, or was this light treatment of the “subject” deliberately included as a boundary violation? Only Dawkins can answer that question, though, to consider the offence it seems to have caused, it was obviously successful in showing his contempt for religion and its unsupported claims to know.
At the same time, it has to said, I think, and has never really been pointed out by Dawkins’ detractors, that anyone who is familiar with the literature of Christian liberal dissent will have heard many of these contemptuous voices already, and will have experienced the outrage of liberal believers at the credulity and intellectual poverty of conservative religion. I think here, in particular, of Philip Kitcher, who, in a series of papers, as well as in a book, has shown the closeness of the liberal religious critique of religion to the atheist critique of religion. As I read through The God Delusion at a time when I was balanced on the knife-edge between liberal belief and unbelief, I found nothing at all offensive about Dawkins’ language, except for the one occasion when he said:
Sophisticated theologians aside (and even they are happy to tell miracle stories to the unsophisticated in order to swell congregations) … 
This is simply untrue. Indeed, my own experience was that congregations swelled when I told the truth, and expressed openly my questions and doubts about many of the things that Christians are supposed to take for granted. I know many clergy who retain a belief in miracles, but I do not know of any sophisticated theologian who would deliberately lie in such a self-serving way. The degree to which many Christians question their traditions is often — or at least was often — surprisingly high, and for every person who was offended there were considerably more who were grateful to have their own suspicions confirmed.
However, back to Nagel. Nagel takes the heart of Dawkins’ book to lie in the fourth chapter: “Why there almost certainly is no god.”
In this central argument of Dawkins’ book, [Nagel says,] the topic is not institutional religion or revealed religion, based on scripture, miracles, or the personal experience of God’s presence. It is what used to be called “natural religion,” or reflection on the question of the existence and nature of God using only the resources of ordinary human reasoning.
This, while not the source of most religious belief, as Nagel says, is nonetheless important. And, important as it is, Nagel does not think that Dawkins’ argument succeeds. (It is worth pointing out, as an aside, that it is not clear that Nagel understands what Dawkins’ central argument is, for he misses the whole point about the improbability of god, based on the idea of god’s complexity. But since he does miss it, there’s scarcely any point discussing it further at this point.) In fact, according to Nagel, Dawkins’ argument fails for the very same reason that Dawkins gives for the failure of arguments to the existence of god. Evolution works well as an explanation for the existence of the living forms that populate the earth; however, says Nagel, just as in the case of arguments for the existence of god, if we take the argument back to the beginning, and ask how life began, we run into mystery. Just as Dawkins asks, “And who created God?”, we can ask, “How did life come about in the beginning?”, “How did there happen to be something on which natural selection could go to work?”
Nagel puts the point like this:
But at this point [regarding the non-biological precursors of DNA and RNA] the origin of life remains, in the light of what is known about the huge size, the extreme specificity, and the exquisite functional precision of the genetic material, a mystery — an event that could not have occurred by chance and to which no significant probability can be assigned on the basis of what we know of the laws of physics and chemistry.
But is this true? Is it true that the first organic molecule, the precursor of RNA and DNA, could not have occurred by chance? How could he know this? Nagel questions Dawkins’ probability argument of one chance in a billion that life has arisen on other planets in the billion billion galaxies of which ours is one. And he thinks that, because this could not have occurred by chance, that is why the design argument is still alive, that there must have been some intention or purpose, perhaps, as Nagel says, a least in the Aristotelian sense of “teleological principles in nature that are explained neither by intentional design nor by purposeless physical causation.”
Nagel’s point seems to be that there must be some internal or external purposiveness for things being as they are — that is part of the reason for his use of the word ‘mystery’ – and that physical causation cannot provide the basis for the purposiveness that we observe in nature, and especially, it seems, to the mental purposiveness that we perceive in ourselves. Only fear of religion, he thinks, can explain why so many “scientifically minded atheists … cling to a defensive, world-flattening reductionism.” And while Nagel acknowledges that there is some basis for this fear, since so many people continue to do dreadful things in the name of religion, he does not agree that the world would be better off without religion. Nor is there, he believes, any connexion “between the fascinating philosophical and scientific questions posed by the argument from design and the attacks of September 11.” And then he launches into his peroration:
Blind faith and the authority of dogma are dangerous; the view that we can make ultimate sense of the world only by understanding it as the expression of mind or purpose is not. It is unreasonable to think that one must refute the second in order to resist the first.
The trouble with this is simply that “the fascinating philosophical and scientific questions posed by the argument from design” are often raised on the battlefield where ignorant armies clash by night, rather than in the quiet of the philosopher’s study or scientist’s laboratory, and, fascinating or not, the questions that are posed are posed as much because of religious beliefs which do, in fact, lead to atrocities like those of September 11th, as because they are philosophically fascinating.
Besides, Nagel does not show us that there are any fascinating questions here. He states that there are, but he does not provide any substantial argument to show that there are still any fascinating questions worthwile discussing. In fact, he says at one point that we should just acknowledge our ignorance and our inability to give a comprehensive account of reality. But this is not, I suspect, an admission of ignorance on his part, but a statement of principle that there are more things in heaven and earth, Richard, than are dreamt of in your philosophy — or science. For it strikes me that Nagel’s review is seriously biased from the beginning by his own concerns about the irreducible significance of consciousness, which is not patient of the kind of flattening reductionism that he thinks occurs in science, but must be acknowledged as something which cannot be accounted for by evolutionary processes. Nor, it seems to me, has he shown that Dawkins evinces any fear of religion, except insofar as blind faith and unquestioned dogma can be dangerous — as Nagel himself concedes. And if there is no reasonable ground upon which to base religious faith, is religious faith not blind, and therefore dangerous? The religious often play the tu quoque game at this point, and argue that science is also based on the faith that the universe will continue to behave in a law-governed way. Yes it is, but this faith is not baseless. Every time a result confirms an hypothesis, every time things continue to happen in regular, uniform ways that can be described in terms of the laws of science, faith that reality is law-governed is confirmed. And now, many centuries into the greatest scientific revolution in history, the law-governedness of the empirical world has been massively confirmed, so massively, as scientists have been pointing out for a long time now, as to bring the supposed existence of a purposive creator of the world into serious question.