googlef87758e9b6df9bec.html A Sure Word: The Logical Failings of Dawkins and other New Atheists

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Logical Failings of Dawkins and other New Atheists

There is a brand of atheist out there commonly called, “new atheists.” They're a peculiar breed who have adopted a different strategy in combating religion. Rather than simply argue about the (supposed) lack of evidence for God, they seek to demonize religion. To them, religion isn't just simply untrue, it's evil and so shouldn't exist. To that end, they lie, malign, demean, and demonize religion in general and Christianity in particular. As is always the case with godless apologetics, such a tactic is rife with contradictions and inconsistencies.

A chief proponent of this movement is Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is not only an archetype of the new atheist, he is also a very gifted speaker. His is an especially venomous approach and he has a way with words that makes his arguments sound compelling if you can overlook the contempt he holds while he speaks them. I'm not trying to question his motives, mind you; if his arguments are sound, it doesn't matter why he makes them. Even so, he is so malicious that he often sounds as though he is simply ranting. It's hard to take someone seriously who does nothing but whine.

Now, because Dawkins is so prolific an author and speaker, there are plenty of his quotes I have at my disposal with which I can expose the fallacies that plague the arguments of new atheism.  Let's look at a few.

A typical approach by folks of this stripe is to highlight examples of “immoral” passages from the Bible. This was the approach taken by the atheist who confronted William Lane Craig in the video I posted a few days back. Typically, critics use loaded words when describing these passages. For example, 1 Samuel 15:2-3 is described as “genocide” and Proverbs 23:13 is described as “child abuse.” This type of argument is known as an “argument of outrage” which is a type of appeal to emotion. It's not really evidence of anything. Instead, it's simply an attempt to make the subject sound less appealing.

Besides being a simple argument of outrage, such arguments are also non sequitur that is, the conclusion does not follow the premise. When atheists make arguments like this, they are, in a sense, saying, “Evil exists, therefore there is no God.” How does that make any sense? That would be like saying, “Crimes happen, therefore there are no police.” Obviously, such a statement is absurd on its face. The morality of something (or lack of morality) is not necessarily evidence of its truthfulness.

Dawkins seems to understand this point. In his book, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, Dawkins said, the following:

“Even if it were true that evolution, or the teaching of evolution, encouraged immorality that would not imply that the theory of evolution was false.”

How strange. It seems that when Dawkins defends his personal point of view, the moral consequences of his positions aren't relevant. However, when attacking religion, Dawkins thinks that its alleged immorality is a fine reason to reject it. The technical term for holding these contradictory views is “special pleading.” In the more common vernacular, it's called “hypocrisy.” Dawkins is correct in the first point: evolution is not false because it is an amoral theory (it's false for a lot of other reasons). But by that same token, neither is Christianity proven false on the sophomoric grounds that some people find certain passages objectionable.

There's still a deeper point behind such arguments. Namely, to call any biblical passage morally wrong, one must first assume there is some absolute standard of right and wrong. If there is no God, then no such standard exists. Indeed, Dawkins has often spoken of the lack of absolute morality. Here's an example of one quote:

In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
River Out Of Eden: A Darwinian View Of Life

So, according to Dawkins, there's no justice, no evil, no good, and no purpose. Some people get hurt and some people get lucky and that's just the way it is.  Everything is just nature being nature and whatever fortune befalls us only comes from nature's “pitiless indifference.” A lion killing a zebra is no more right or wrong than an apple falling from a tree. Both are simply natural events that occur in a universe without purpose. But in typical, irrational fashion, Dawkins doesn't apply his worldview consistently. Consider the following quote:

Faith can be very very dangerous, and deliberately to implant it into the vulnerable mind of an innocent child is a grievous wrong.”
The God Delusion

Note his use of the word, “wrong.” On what grounds does he consider it wrong? By his own words, parents teaching children how to behave is nothing more than the “pitiless indifference” of our “selfish genes” trying to perpetuate themselves in a world who's only rule is to survive. If, by passing their faith on to their children, parents are conveying some survival benefit, then it's not “wrong.” One might as well say that an apple falling from a tree is “wrong.”  The only way Dawkins can call anything wrong is if he first concedes there is an absolute standard of right and wrong.  Such a standard does not exist in a universe without God so in order to say it's "wrong" to teach a child religion, Dawkins must first appeal to the biblical idea that there is an absolute standard of morality.  Ironic, huh?

Of course, one might try to argue that there is no survival benefit to believing in God but that is not the point; if there is no God then there is no absolute standard of right or wrong. Whether or not there is a selective advantage to believing in God is up to nature to decide – not Dawkins. Besides, as we've already discussed, whether or not something is objectionable isn't evidence of its truthfulness. Let me give you another quote by Dawkins.

Unfortunately, however much we may deplore something, it does not stop being true.”
The Selfish Gene

That one sentence undoes his own argument. If Dawkins truly feels this way, why does he devote the entire book, The God Delusion, to describing how deplorable he thinks religion is? From this book we read:

Yahweh: The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unplesant 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.”

OK, Dawkins. So what's your point? No matter how deplorable you find something, that doesn't stop it from being true, right? That's what you said. Hypocrite! How typical of atheists. Even if every word in your libelous characterization of God were true, you haven't spoken anything against His existence. You might have told me that you find Him deplorable; I'm waiting for evidence that He's not real.

I find Dawkins' gross hypocrisy and total lack of coherence to be abominable. I guess that's evidence that Dawkins doesn't exist. Oh, if were only that easy! I never cease to be amazed at the self-defeating arguments used by atheists. In one breath Dawkins says that evolution is true no matter its morality; then in the next breath he says religion is false because of its morality. Such is the way of the irrational.


Steven J. said...

First, Dawkins arguments are not special pleading. Evolution purports to be a fact about biology, about how populations of living things change over time. It is also admittedly a discovery by fallible human beings whose works are open to subsequent improvement. Christianity purports to be a revelation from an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-benevolent Creator God Who has revealed (in part) His morally perfect will to us, and Whose edicts are not subject to later revision or correction.

Evolutionary theory doesn't contain any implication that believing in common descent or natural selection makes us better people, so it is no criticism of the theory to argue that such beliefs don't make us better people.

Following the Bible, on the other hand, is supposed to make us better people; it is relevant to the truth of the Bible's claims whether this claim is true. The point is not whether there is evil in the world; the point is whether evil is recommended as good in what is supposed to be an inerrant and holy book.

Or, since you have argued that no moral claims are "true" apart from God, it matters whether we are actually willing to acknowledge and follow the morality the Bible actually teaches. 1 Samuel 15:2-3 prescribes "the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group" (the Amalekites, in this case). That is genocide, by common definition. Either defend it, or concede Dawkins' point; don't complain about "loaded words."

The Bible itself backs away, in some passages, from moral principles it enunciates in others: in the Pentateuch, God promises to punish descendants for the sins of their ancestors; in Ezekiel, He declares that this is contrary to His nature. He rains down fire from heaven on Sodom, and refuses (in the person of His Son) to do so on inhospitable Samaritan cities. Much of what Dawkins points to in the Bible can be criticized from other parts of the Bible.

Dawkins, by the way, surely considers morality to be an emergent (and evolving, in the social rather than biological sense) property: genes no more have morality than chlorine atoms have saltiness, but things built by genes can have them just as masses of sodium chloride can be salty. Human morality, on such a view, is grounded in human nature; things are good or bad because they are good or bad for us, on built-in standards that were shaped by but are not inherent in the mechanisms of evolution.

Steven J. said...

One other, nit-picking point: as far as I know, the only "new atheist" who actually calls himself a "new atheist" is the physicist Victor Stenger. Blogger and biologist P.Z. Myers detests the term, and most other writers lumped into the "new atheists" seem indifferent to it. This may seem a trivial point: whether or not someone uses your particular label for his point of view. On the other hand, several apologists have noted that many of these "new atheist" arguments are not that novel; Dawkins is not that different, in spirit or substance, from, e.g. the 19th-century agnostic Robert Ingersoll as regards their arguments against the Bible.

RKBentley said...

Steven J,

Thanks for your comments. I've written another post that discusses some of the same issues (from a slightly different angle) that's scheduled to be posted at midnight. Hopefully, it will clarify my thoughts about Dawkins a little.

In the meanwhile, I'll say this: Dawkins said in one quote that there is no justice, no purpose, no good, and no evil in the universe. In another quote, he said that it is a “grievous wrong” for parents to teach their religion to their children. If there is no right or wrong then parents passing their religion on to their kids cannot be a “grievous wrong.” Since both statements cannot be true, which is false? The first, the latter, or both? It's because of their contradictory nature that we can't take many atheist arguments seriously.

Concerning 1 Samuel 15, I did write a short piece about that very early in my blogging career. The thumbnail of my argument was (and still is) the simple fact that there has always been only 1 penalty for sin – death. Death passes to everyone because all have sinned. Some people die old and some die young. Some die violently and some die peacefully. Whatever the way, the mortality rate among people is 100%.

Think about this, for a moment: not only did all the Amalekites die, but so did Saul, Samuel, Saul's armies, all the people of Israel, and everyone else in the world who was contemporary with the Amalekites. Since everyone is appointed to die, it is somewhat presumptuous for anyone to say, “these people didn't deserve to die.”

I might pull out that old post, polish it up a little, add a few paragraphs, then re-post it. But I absolutely do defend the perfect character and judgment of God. Did you really think I might say otherwise?

Thanks again for your comments. Remember to check back after midnight.

God bless!!


Steven J. said...

Dawkins stated that "at bottom" the universe is devoid of design, purpose, or morality. Now, Dawkins certainly doesn't deny the existence of design: in at least one of his books he has distinguished between the "pseudo-design" of natural selection and the actual design of, say, cars or books. He attributes purposes to people (I don't always agree with the purposes he attributes to people he disagrees with, and you presumably disagree that many features of the living world are "pseudo-design"), so presumably he believes that at some level, there really are such things as purpose and design in the universe. They are, Dawkins holds, attributes of evolved intelligent life, and not properties of the matter or physical processes that gave rise to intelligent life.

As noted, I'm reasonably sure that Dawkins holds the same view of morality: it exists, but it exists only because we exist. It is grounded in a nature that didn't exist until we did. Dawkins has stated, if I recall correctly, that it is actually unreasonable to judge the Mosaic law by our modern standards (things like, e.g. taking your son before the elders to have him stoned for being rebellious is actually a limitation on the traditional absolute power of the father over his children in tribal societies); he does so because his opponents insist that it is not the time- and place-limited product of a particular culture more ignorant and desperate than our own, but the perfect law of an infallible God, so on their own terms it is reasonable to judge it by the standards of a more fortunate, more sophisticated culture.

Exodus 23:7 commands the Israelites not to put innocent people to death, implying that there were such people, and that it made a difference whether they were stoned now or died naturally later. Isaiah 5:23, on the contrary, condemns those who take a bribe to acquit the guilty, taking no heed that these guilty men will die eventually no matter what. Several passages in the Bible seem to distinguish between people who deserve to die and those who do not.

RKBentley said...

Steven J,

You've very aptly described Dawkins' views. He talked about the “seeming” design observed in nature to be the product of the “blind watchmaker” of natural selection. You're also right that he said “at [the] bottom” there's no purpose, design, or morality. By, “at bottom” he must mean something like at the foundation, the most underlying premise, or the most fundamental principle. Do you agree?

That is my understanding of his argument but none of that diminishes my point. If morality is only the product of human nature, how can we OBJECTIVELY say (from our understanding of human nature) that the legal practices of the ancient Hebrews were “wrong” since they were acting according to their understanding of morality from the perspective of their human nature? If lions ever evolved to vegetarians, could they look back at their ancestors and say they were “evil” for eating meat?

If morality only exists in humans than humans always act morally by definition. How can one be evil if he acts only according to his nature?

If morality is defined by the consensus of humans, then the Hebrews did not act immorally because that was the consensus of their day.

I can only say again, if there is no absolute, transcendent standard of morality, then nothing can be objectively called “wrong.”

God bless!!


Steven J. said...

As I understand it (Dawkins was talking about the random destruction wreaked by natural catastrophes, the prevalence of death and suffering in nature, the immense spaces of the universe devoid of any sort of life at all), Dawkins' point was that the universe shows no sign of being constructed as an abode for life (most of it is utterly unihabitable), or of serving any moral or instructive purpose (most of it doesn't). He's saying that the universe is what we would expect if there were no supernatural, benevolent (or malevolent) Lawgiver; he's not talking about the traits of intelligent beings who live in the universe but didn't make it. "At bottom" refers to causes, not principles in the sense you seem to be using the term.

And I suspect that Dawkins would, if pressed, concede that Paul was onto something in Romans 7 when he complained that he often did things that he himself (and by implication humans in general) regarded as wrong. Agreeing that something is right doesn't guarantee that people will do it. Agreeing that some outcome is desirable doesn't mean that people will agree on the best way to attain it (or that all methods are equally good).

I'm pretty sure that Dawkins would agree that morality differs from one time to another, depending on what a culture is capable of and what it knows. I don't think this implies that whatever a culture, or an individual within it, does, must be right according to the standards available at that time and place.

RKBentley said...

Steven J,

You said, “And I suspect that Dawkins would, if pressed, concede that Paul was onto something in Romans 7 when he complained that he often did things that he himself (and by implication humans in general) regarded as wrong. Agreeing that something is right doesn't guarantee that people will do it. Agreeing that some outcome is desirable doesn't mean that people will agree on the best way to attain it (or that all methods are equally good).”

Paul, I, and everyone else are in the same boat in that we do things that we know are wrong. I'm not necessarily beating Dawkins up because he contradicted himself. Rather, by pointing out contradictions, I want to highlight the fact that both positions cannot be true. One or the other (or both) has to be false. So which of his arguments can we ignore as invalid? Maybe all.

You said, “I'm pretty sure that Dawkins would agree that morality differs from one time to another, depending on what a culture is capable of and what it knows. I don't think this implies that whatever a culture, or an individual within it, does, must be right according to the standards available at that time and place.”

I don't think Dawkins would agree at all. If so, then he's wasted all the time he spent writing his book, The God Delusion. His entire premise seems to be that theism is the agent for all kinds of “evil” throughout history. If morality is relevant to its time and culture, how can Dawkins condemn any point of Mosaic law since it simply reflects the morality of its time/culture? Indeed, how can he objectively condemn the Holocaust since it too was the product of the culture in which it occurred?

As a matter of fact, Dawkins is on pretty shaky grounds condemning the morality of the Bible even by today's standards. After all, the overwhelming majority of people in the US profess to be Christians. So if morality is determined by consensus, it's Dawkins who is “wrong.”

This goes back to the very point raised by Dr. Craig, me, and many others: absolute morality can only exist if there is a transcendent Lawgiver. Most atheists are loath to admit there is an absolute standard of right and wrong but they conduct themselves as though one exists. Dawkins said it's a "grievous wrong" for parents to teach their faith to their kids. That's irrational. If Dawkins worldview is correct, he has no basis on which to call anything wrong. He's not acting according to what he professes to believe is true.

Dr. Jason Lisle calls unbelievers “presuppositional kleptomaniacs” because they can't help stealing biblical principles (like absolute morality) in order to make sense of the world.

Thanks for your comment. God bless!!