Lessons from the Atheists - Chapter 4

"Lessons from the Atheists"


Chapter 4 : Attacks by Ricochets from Richard Dawkins



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4.1 Introduction


Reading both The God Delusion and God is not Great takes one into the world of the circus artist who fires round corners by the use of ricochets. The use of ricochets in comedy films is highly entertaining but in the realm of logical argument is merely frustrating.


Time and again we are led to believe that an attack is going to be made on fundamental issues, only to find that the target is some imaginary scarecrow, and we are left wondering if the idea was to somehow ricochet off the scarecrow and hit the main declared target.


On this page we will consider such ‘secondary targets', in The God Delusion and then on a later page in God is not Great.  The lesson that will become obvious for the young Christian defending his faith against atheists must be, does what it being said actually attack a belief in God? The answer, we will find, is that mostly it doesn't!



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4.2 The Title and Main Purpose


Well I suppose the main, ultimate target has to be the title of the book itself and what it reveals.


In his Preface of The God Delusion, Richard refers to his “central question of whether God exists.” Very well, we'll accept that at face value. The thesis of this book is to be about whether God exists and, from the title, the assumption that to believe in Him is a delusion.


Now a danger, which I think I nearly fell into, is to assume that every chapter is going to show that belief in God is a delusion. This denies the possibility that the author may be building up to something and therefore builds up foundational issues until he is ready to bring the coup de grace. So what do we find? Let's look at the first four chapters to see how it works out:





“A deeply religious non-believer”: Part 1 picks up a favourite theme of Richard's, which is that you don't have to be religious to have awe about Creation. It then moves on to suggest that various scientists weren't religious even though they made ‘religious noises'. Part 2 wonders why religion should be granted the respect it apparently demands.


So, the targets of this chapter are the ability to be godless while appreciating the world, and undeserved respect for religion. Neither of those things deny God's presence so they must obviously be foundation stones for later on – I think!




“The God Hypothesis”: A scatter-gun is used to achieve the ricochets here. Insulting God (perhaps mud will stick – sorry mixed metaphors!), a few negatives about Polytheism, less about Monotheism, the assertion that America wasn't founded on Christian faith, the declaration that agnosticism is a poor stopping place, a challenge that religion should be open to scientific scrutiny, an odd example suggesting that prayer can't be verified, a plea for atheists to club together, and speculation that advanced worlds may have aliens who would seem godlike to us today.


This 48 page chapter, you might think, might have been the main blast, but in fact it skirted around God and covered everything but Him. If this chapter is seen as scrapping off barnacles from the bottom of a boat, to reveal the boat (to mix metaphors even more), that might possibly be justification for it, but that wasn't made clear and it doesn't seem to do that anyway.




“Arguments for God's Existence”: thoughts about Aquinas and Anselm, thoughts about beauty, the assertion that Christian experience is mind games, the Bible seen through Gnostic eyes, thoughts about believing and unbelieving scientists.


Now this, surely, should get to the nub of the matter for surely Christian teaching, Christian experience, and the Bible, are indeed some of the main foundation stones for belief in God through Christian eyes? Sadly he misunderstands the theologians from the past, merely speculates about experience and fails to examine the incredible range of Christian experience, both present and past, fails to look at the origins of the Bible and instead leans on broken straws of discredited Gnostic writers. The ‘bullets' of this chapter aren't even plastic, they are cotton wool! But at least it did approach the main subject, even if it didn't go close to destroying it.




“Why there is almost certainly no God”: a new theory to be revealed, raising consciousness about natural selection, negatives about intelligent design, ponderings about God of the gaps, a statistical basis for chance beginnings.


Now this is where he really does start weighing in, using lots of clever language and clever ideas to overwhelm the gullible. However the new theory isn't described here, natural selection was simply a reiteration of speculative science, intelligent design was a rejection of a lot of new scientists' ideas, and the use of statistics was possibly the worse abuse of betting odds that I have ever come across. The idea that you can make the impossible plausible by the use of odds, could have easily have been a subject at the Mad Hatters Tea Party if Lewis Carroll had been so inclined.

The stated aim, or main target, is fired at indirectly through speculative and questionable reasoning. Even the last target, a world created by chance, as totally implausible as it is, doesn't deny the existence of God; it merely has a bizarre use of statistics to suggest it is possible for life to have come about somewhere by accident. This is like saying that in my garden it is possible that the wind blew over a flower pot and wasn't me bumping into it. That says nothing in reality about my presence in the garden.




Well let's not take up any more of your time working through the chapters – you can see them in our Appraisal.


I have taken these first four chapters to highlight something that seemed to occur again and again in this book. The central target was not directly in the author's sights. More often than not, it was shooting at God being a delusion by firing at other lesser targets and hoping that there would be a ricochet that would somehow hit that main target.


Any serious thinker will try and identify each of these individual targets and then ask, does this genuinely contribute to the argument? In chapter 3 where he attacks Aquinas and Anselm, he fails to realise that they were theologians who took their belief in God from the Bible, and they only put forward some of the theories that are being attacked as a means of saying, “see philosophically, it makes sense.” No one leans on these arguments as foundation stones, no one that is except those who don't understand their history and who therefore think these are good targets from which to achieve a ricochet.


Some of these lesser targets are actually so fuzzy as again to be useless. Arguing against Pascal's ‘good idea' (Ch.3) is like firing at a cardboard target; it won't even cause a ricochet!


Some of the scientifically speculative targets that Richard has under his sights are used more as distractions than as genuine ricochet targets, I believe. The arguments, about natural selection and creation by staggeringly impossible odds, are used by Richard without realising that neither of them actually undermine the existence of God.


It IS possible still to have an Almighty God who designed things to work as they do – using staggering odds, if you want to stretch credulity to breaking point – for they don't actually show that He is not there. But as the examples (or targets) are so full of holes as to be beyond the bounds of belief of most people who really think about it with an open mind, it's not really worth considering!



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4.3 Primary Misc. Ricochet Targets


Remember the suggestion we are making is that many of the things that Richard raises in the book are merely secondary issues, and although some may be valid in their own right, they really do little or nothing to contribute to the argument about God's existence.


Let's take the big issues first, of which there are three:


i) America


The United States finds itself in Richard's sights again and again. Is tends to be so for one of two reasons. First there is the issue of whether the constitution of the USA was founded on Christian principles. The fact that the Pilgrim Fathers were Christians would suggest that Christianity would have had some influence, even many years later, but whether or not the leaders were Christians, deists, or atheists is utterly irrelevant to the argument about God's existence.


As far as the origins of the USA go, let's quote from our notes:


Charles Colson, with Nancy Pearcey, in How Now Shall We Live, makes a very balanced comment:


    "At the birth of our nation, no one - not even deists and skeptics - doubted that basic biblical truths undergirded American institutions and informed the nation's values. Though the Founding Fathers drew heavily from the Enlightenment philosophy as well as from Christian tradition, few at the time saw any contradiction between the two." 


The second reason that Richard attacks America is because of the vocal Christian leaders, some of whom haven't always been wise in the way they spoke. ‘God's Country' it may be, but sometimes God isn't always well represented. Although the Church in the United States does sometimes lead with its chin, I believe it only fair to say that they have often been a good example to the rest of us. Perhaps some of the poor image to the rest of us has been because they have had the faith to stretch out into areas of the media where the rest of us have not gone, and forerunners often go over the top.


To balance up the picture let's take one tiny picture from our notes:


Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey comment in How Now Shall We Live,


"At one point in the early nineteenth century in America, there were more than eleven hundred Christian societies working for social justice"


And how many atheist societies I wonder!!!!

ii) The Roman Catholic Church 


Many of us who are Christians, and who are not part of the Roman Catholic Church, are deeply unhappy about the political history of this part of the Church, the power structures of this part of the church, the pomp and affluence of the church of Rome, and many of the teachings that are add-ons and, yes, the abuses that have been carried on by individuals in respect of children down through the ages and in recent years.


Particularly the political history of the Church of Rome has been embarrassing and it has been good that some apologies have been made. Nevertheless a massive power structure such as the Vatican may be a force for potential good, but it is also vulnerable to the temptations of powerful political institutions. For these reasons Richard has been given genuine things against which to speak. However there are two further comments that need to be made in this discussion.


First, whatever the antics of particular Christians, groups of Christians, denominations, or parts of the Church, this has nothing to say about the existence of God beyond the fact that He is very merciful, in that He doesn't wipe us all out for being imperfect representatives of Him. This is the main point here and is what makes the subject of the Catholic Church a secondary target that does nothing except possibly act as a ricocheting source so that some might think the main tart is hit. It isn't!


Second, while it is obvious that, for the point of debate, only negative things are brought forward, I would suggest that for the sake of truth, it should be recognised that the Catholic Church has been a bringer of incredible amounts of good all around the world where priests, nuns and their congregations have worked with the poor and for society. To criticise the institution should not demean the incredible numbers of genuinely good, caring and compassionate men and women of that Church who have ministered God's love to the world around them in the face of poverty and degradation. No, these are not perfect men and women, but that makes even more wonderful their service to mankind.


As a follow-up comment of this subject I think it is worth commenting on the general teaching of the Catholic Church. While, in many of our eyes as least, there have been grounds for disagreement and concern over what I have referred to as add-on beliefs or perhaps, extra-Biblical beliefs, an examination of the many words of the present pope on the Vatican website reveals the depth of grace and pure biblical teaching so often presented. The appeal for goodness in so many ways is possibly one reason for the many attacks on the Catholic Church. So yes, we don't agree with everything they say or do, but to write off everything that comes from that part of the Christian Church is unthinking and ungracious – and possibly pharisaical.


While shooting at the institution, it is worthwhile remembering that in reality, political abuses in the past have not involved the vast majority of the Church who were simply followers. It was only the Princes of the institution. This is not to excuse them, but to limit the reality of what is being challenged.

iii) The Bible


Now attacks on the Bible come again and again and of course the whole of Chapter 7 is given over to it. I almost hesitate to put this subject here as a secondary target because, as I have already indicated, the belief in the Bible is a primary foundation stone for Christian belief. However, the way Richard goes about attacking the Bible is more like he attacks the other secondary issues – superficial – and therefore it really hardly seems a genuine attack. For this reason we will deal with the Bible and specifically the things he says about it, and the examples he attacks, as a separate chapter.



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4.4 Secondary Misc. Ricochet Targets


The above targets appear again and again. There are also a number of very secondary targets that appear just once but which seem to be used to snipe indirectly at the main target – the actual existence of God.


i) Scientists who are not Christians


There is a whole part in Ch.1 which is a complete red herring. It speculates that so many of the scientists, who Christians have claimed for the Christian faith, were not, in fact, religious. Within the notes of the Appraisal, I have observed the following:


•  It seems strange that these men seem drawn to religious language if they are anti-religion.
•  You can be brilliant in one area (science) but absolutely ignorant in another (religion) and so to make a case that such men were not religious, says nothing about the end conclusions of religion.
•  Whether or not these men were believers, semi-believers or non-believers does nothing whatsoever for the case against God's existence.
•  As much as Richard would like to be making absolute conclusions about these men, I'm not sure that a) he makes his case and b) the jury is still out and will remain out on many of them.


ii) Origins of Religion


This is a ‘manufactured' secondary target. It is obviously important because if Richard could show that religion started as pure superstition, developed as tribal animism, enlarged into Polytheism as seen in the beliefs of the Greeks and Romans, and then only became monotheistic as seen in Judaism, Christianity and eventually Islam, he may actually have a good case to say that religion and belief in God seems to have been something that very slowly developed in primitive man and seems to be more mere ideas of mankind. So he declares this is how it is!


Unfortunately for him, that's not how it is.


Professor Keith Ward, in Is Religion Dangerous? writes:  


“The truth is that we know virtually nothing about the first origins of religious belief. From a purely scientific point of view, all we have to go on are grave goods and archaeological remains.”


In case we didn't get the point, he later continues:

Despite the fact that there is virtually no extant evidence for what the origins of religion were (since the origins must have been hundreds of thousands of years ago), this has not stopped scholars making definitive claims about what really happened... The result of this scholarly fantasizing was that religion turned out, amazingly, to be a very primitive phenomenon that could now be seen to be superstitious, and had long been superseded by science.... In his definitive work Theories of Primitive Religion , the Oxford anthropologist Evans-Pritchard has established the uselessness of all this fantasizing, which is based on unreliable, uncritical or non-existent evidence.”

In our Apologetics pages, Page 31, we examine how the Bible reveals for us, a perfectly consistent way that revelation of God came about.



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4.5   Conclusions


To recap what we have covered in this chapter:


1. The Title

  •  The thesis of this book is to be about whether God exists and, from the title, the assumption that to believe in Him is a delusion.


  •   Although one should not expect every chapter to focus on this we would expect each one to contribute some building block to the downfall of the God-belief. None of the chapters do this!


2. Primary ‘Secondary Targets'


  •   Never actually focusing on the primary building blocks of the Christian faith, Richard is left firing at secondary targets, presuming somehow to cause a ‘ricochet' that might eventually hit that primary target. 


  •   The main or primary forms or secondary targets he shoots at are: 
    •   America 
    •   The Roman Catholic Church
    •   The Bible


3. Secondary ‘Secondary Targets'

These are lesser targets of which we have simply considered only:

    •   Scientists who are not religious
    •   Origins of Religion


To remind ourselves of the point of this book and specifically of this chapter

  •   we are considering what we can learn from the crusading atheists,
  •   we are doing this by looking at their approaches,
  •   in this chapter we have been observing:   
    •   Richard's inability attack the basic foundation stones of the Christian faith
    •   the secondary targets he has been aiming at, which he appears unable to see say little or nothing about the actual existence of God.

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