Christian Response to The God Delusion

Richard Dawkins Straw Man

Every Christian needs to be ready with a Christian Response to The God Delusion. Why? Richard Dawkins’ name is often invoked as the reason why Christianity has been debunked. In The God DelusionDawkins constructs an elaborate argument to put social pressure on people to become atheists. Yet his whole argument rests on a “straw man” version of Christianity that bears little resemblance to Christianity. If we are equipped with a Christian Response to The God Delusion, not only will our faith not flag, we may plant a seed that weakens an atheists antagonism to the gospel. That is, after all the heart of what apologetics ministry is.

Richard Dawkins Straw Man ChristianityToday’s posting features my debunking of Dawkins’ argument with liberal aid from Alister McGrath and Johanna Collicutt McGrath’s, The Dawkins DelusionI encourage you to read on. You, dear reader, will one day face the challenge that Dawkins has shown God is a megalomaniac, jealous, fanatic who is ridiculous to believe in. This post will equip you to answer that charge.

DAWKINS’ STRAW MAN CHRISTIANITY BY TRACY DUGGER

Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, attempts to show that atheism “is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one.”[1] His purpose in writing is to create atheists. He hopes that the reading of this book will exert such pressure that believers will be atheists by the time they put it down.[2] To achieve this end Dawkins makes a loosely constructed argument based on a fallacy of relevance, an appeal to the people. An appeal to the people is when an arguers attempts to coerce his hearers to believe in a conclusion, in this case atheism, based on social pressure. Dawkins constructs this social pressure by purporting that a world without religion would be a substantially better place, because religion leads to violence and attempting to show that religion is unnecessary to explain the origins of life, universe, and morality, and therefore, should be discarded. In his quest to convert people to atheism Dawkins uses several methods that fall outside the realm of solid scientific or philosophical argument. I intend to show that the social pressure Dawkins exerts to convert believers falls away when one exposes his portrayal of religion as a straw man fallacy.[3]

First off what is a straw man? In philosophical debate and logic there exist several recognized logical fallacies that break the rules of debate. One of these is the straw man fallacy. The straw man fallacy is when an arguer creates a distortion of an opponents position, and then disproves the distortion rather than the actual position. Dawkins’ straw man portrayal of Christianity is multi-faceted, but bears little resemblance to the actual historical faith that he is attempting to dissuade people from.

The first characteristic of Dawkins’ straw man is that all religion is equal for his purposes in arguing. Dawkins limits, and limits is a generous attribution, the scope of his book to “supernatural gods, of which the most familiar to the majority of my readers will be Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament.”[4] In one fell swoop he asserts that all three Abrahamic religions are synonymous, but for the sake of his readers and his own familiarity he will deal primarily with Christianity.[5] In another sweeping move of arrogance, Dawkins brushes other religions like Buddhism and polytheism off the table, as unnecessary to discuss, and yet still asserts that he decries “supernaturalism in all its forms.”[6] How does Dawkins justify this limited focus on Christianity, and yet sweeping scope of his rejection of religion in all its forms?

Alister McGrath, in his book, The Dawkins Delusion, illuminates the basis for Dawkins’ rhetorical salvo that equates all religions.[7] Dawkins justifies his move using the anthropologic work of James Frazer.[8] Frazer asserted that all religion had universal traits, but to do so he ignored real contextual engagement with the cultures he studied, and discarded methods of systematic empirical study.[9] Frazer’s work dates from the 19th Century and has been largely discredited by all anthropological research since, which has asserted that there is no agreed upon universal definition of religion, much less unifying themes between religions.[10] This notion that all religions are equal for his rhetorical purposes, is clearly a notion Dawkins is not philosophically entitled to. In terms of logical fallacies, it is a hasty generalization equating religions, and it is justified with a fallacious appeal to an unqualified authority, the largely discredited and outdated Frazer.

Dawkins by fallacious means snuck in the identification that Yahweh is equivalent to all other gods. Now for Dawkins’ purposes of familiarity he feels free to restrict his focus to the Abrahamic religions, but predominantly Christianity, and yet still assert that he is disproving religion as a whole.

Dawkins continues the construction of his straw man by mischaracterizing who the Christian God is. He begins “The God Hypothesis” with this highly polemical statement, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjest, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”[11] A sound philosophical argument relies on the basis of all its premises being true. Thus, Dawkins should have turned to substantiating his claim that the God of the Old Testament is any or all of these adjectives. Dawkins does not. He instead moves on to polytheism and secularism, and why mere agnosticism is not a far enough step for him. Dawkins apparently expects us the reader, to agree with his characterization of Yahweh.

He also calls the God of the New Testament, Jesus a ‘milksop,’ and of little consequence.[12] Dawkins is bifurcating the Biblical narrative into a false dichotomy, which pits the God of the Old Testament against Jesus. Jesus, in John 10:30, asserts that he and the Father are one. Isaiah 63:16, among other places in Scripture, ascribes the name Father and redeemer to Yahweh. Clearly Dawkins is basing his false dichotomy between Yahweh and Jesus on a highly selective reading of Scripture.

The persistent mischaracterization of the Christian God continues in Chapter 3, “Arguments for God’s Existence.” In the introductory paragraph of his section “The Argument From Scripture,” Dawkins commits a large fallacy of presumption when he asserts that “there is no good historical evidence that [Jesus] ever thought he was divine.” Dawkins is obviously suppressing scriptural testimony itself, but also the works of many historical critical scholars. Dawkins attempts to further distance his readers from belief in Scriptural testimony, not through a reasoned analysis of historical criticism, but a sloppy ad hominem argument against the writers of Scripture.

Dawkins attempts to illustrate that the Bible is nothing but a large game of telephone, by which the final product no longer resembles the original facts because of “fallible scribes who, in any case, had their own religious agendas.”[13] Dawkins conveniently ignores corroborating evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls that illustrates remarkable text fidelity, and he certainly does not offer any corroborating evidence to substantiate his claim that the scribes were working under their own agenda.

Dawkins continues with his straw man construction of Christianity by asserting that the four canonical gospels were chosen “more or less arbitrarily, out of a larger sample.” This is once again a case of suppressed evidence. The process of canonical selection rested on whether a text was orthodox and widely circulated. Dawkins does this because he wishes to use some of the non-canonical texts claims to prejudice the reader against Scripture as a whole. For example, Dawkins references the Gospel of Thomas, considered to be a gnostic text, which features Jesus “abusing his magical powers in the manner of a mischievous fairy,” according to Dawkins.[14] This is as absurd as letting the character development in fan-fiction have a bearing on the original content’s merit.

The final piece de resistance in Dawkins’ Straw Man argument is found in chapter 8, “What’s wrong with religion? Why be so hostile?” wherein Dawkins cites some of the most extreme religious fundamentalists. He cites Fred Phelps, of “God Hates Fags” infamy, with the Westboro Baptist Church, as well as the suppression of science by some Christian fundamentalists.[15] Dawkins commits a hasty generalization, deriving a general rule from a non-representative sample of Christianity, by asserting that fundamentalist religion is out to ruin scientific education, and ‘sensible’ religion allows it.[16] Dawkins asserts that all adherents to religion are teaching children “that unquestioning faith is a virtue.”[17] This quite frankly is not true, and not normative of centuries of Christian thought that have valued reason and scientific inquiry, to better understand God’s creation. Admittedly, there have been fundamentalist fringes that have sought to impede the teachings of naturalistic science, but to portray this as normative is a hasty generalization, that suits Dawkins appeal to the people, to coerce his hearers to believe his position based on social pressure.

The coercive social pressure Dawkins seeks to create rests heavily on his straw man mischaracterization of Christianity, and larger religion in general. Too sum up, Dawkins believe all religion is unnecessary to science, infantile and limiting, and worse leads to violence. How could anyone believe in something like that? Were Dawkins’ portrayal of religion, particularly Christianity, remotely correct, his attack that believers make the world a worse place would be just. Yet, Dawkins is most assuredly not correct in his portrayal of Christianity.

Alister McGrath, in his book, The Dawkins Delusion, gives a more thorough disassembling of Dawkins straw man argument of Christianity. McGrath concludes, as I have shown, that in Dawkins’ The God Delusion “religion is persistently and consistently portrayed in the worst possible way, mimicking the worst features of religious fundamentalism’s portrayal of atheism.” Much of Dawkins book seems to be a false cause connection between religion and violence, and the false dichotomy between science and religion. Contrary to Dawkins’ assertions that atheism is incompatible or made irrational by serious engagement with the naturalistic sciences, Steven Jay Gould, of Harvard University, and himself an atheist, asserted that the sciences must be consistent with both atheism and religious belief, otherwise half of his colleagues were fools, and that view was inconsistent with the intelligence of his colleagues, religious and non-religious alike.[18]

In conclusion, Dawkins’ purpose, to create atheists from believers, is heavily reliant on an appeal to the people, which creates social pressure for people to believe a certain way. To create this social pressure, Dawkins constructs a straw man version of Christianity which he asserts is representative of not only Christianity, but of religion in general. The straw man Christianity relies heavily on the negative portrayal of Yahweh, a false dichotomy between the new and old testaments, suppressed evidence about the historical veracity of Scripture, hasty generalizations between religion and violence and religion and fundamental extremes. Dawkins is only apt to succeed in creating atheists through social pressure if his straw man portrayal of Christianity is accepted as valid. His commission of so many logical fallacies means that Dawkins is not philosophically entitled to his straw man portrayal of Christianity, as the worship of the “most unpleasant character in all fiction.”[19]

If you have made it this far, you are now fairly well equipped with a Christian response to The God Delusion. If you have any questions about any of the terms used, or would like to discuss any of the other major themes in either The God Delusion or The Dawkins Delusion, just shoot me a line in the comments and I will do my best to engage your question.

 

 

[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Mariner Books, 2008), 23.

[2] Ibid., 28.

[3] Dawkins’ commits so many logical fallacies, that a thorough analysis is not possible in the scope of this paper. It is my belief that the other fallacies are incidental to his mischaracterization of Christianity, and thus will be discussed only tangentially through that lens.

[4] Ibid., 41.

[5] Ibid., 58.

[6] Ibid., 57.

[7] Alister McGrath & Joanna Collicutt McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007),  59-60.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid. 60.

[10] Ibid., 59-60.

[11] Dawkins, 51.

[12] Ibid., 52.

[13] Ibid., 118

[14] Ibid., 121.

[15] 322-326

[16] Ibid., 323.

[17] Ibid.

[18] McGrath, 11.

[19] Dawkins, 51.

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