A Dozen Logical Fallacies in The God Delusion
Norman J. Lund, Ph. D.
NOTE: Richard Dawkins is a famous scientist from Oxford U. and a leading atheist. He argues that there no more evidence for belief in God than for Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. He says that “faith-heads” who believe in God are “ignorant, stupid, or insane.” In this book, The God Delusion (Mariner ed., 2008), he claims to prove that religion is a “vice” based upon “indoctrination.” Belief in God, according to Dawkins, is a “delusion”: “a persistent false belief held in the face of strong, contradictory evidence” (Preface, p. 28). However, when his arguments are examined objectively, they prove to be riddled with fallacies. A fallacy is an argument which appears plausible on the surface, but which is found to rest upon false or invalid assumptions. As a single illness may involve many overlapping symptoms, the logical weaknesses in this book also involve many overlapping fallacies. Rather than prove his point Mr. Dawkins instead provides an excellent teaching tool to demonstrate logical fallacies.
A. Fallacies of Irrelevance (Distraction)
1. Ad baculum (veiled threat): Mr. Dawkins threatens his opponents. He implies that scientists who disagree with him can expect to pay a penalty from other atheists like him (e.g. to be scorned and shunned). For example, he argues that no one who agrees with Mother Teresa about the sanctity of life should “be taken seriously on any topic, let alone be thought seriously worthy of a Nobel Prize” (p. 330). This implied threat has been exposed as a real threat by Ben Stein in the documentary: Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (http://www.expelledthemovie.com). Stein interviews numerous scientists who have lost funding and even their jobs just for questioning Darwinism. Such threats and intimidation have no place in logical argument or legitimate science.
2. Ad hominem (personal attack): Personal ridicule is also out of order. Nevertheless Dawkins shamelessly stigmatizes both individuals and organizations for their personal and religious convictions. Several eminent scientists who have been open about their traditional Christian beliefs are ridiculed as “a subject of amused bafflement to their peers in the academic community” (p. 125). In the same vein, Moody Bible Institute is mocked as the “rock bottom” in the “hierarchy of American universities;” Wheaton College is “a little bit higher on the scale, but still the Alma Mater of Billy Graham” (p. 121). James Dobson is accused of “indoctrination” as the “founder of today’s infamous ‘Focus on the Family’ movement” (p. 206). From a logical perspective, the expression of such personal biases is completely inappropriate. Bigotry does not constitute logical argument or scientific evidence. Behind these personal attacks and bigotry lies Dawkins’ repeated accusation that Christianity is a malignant and “corrosive force” which is fatal to the scientific enterprise (Technology, Entertainment and Design Conference: Feb., 2002; Posted: TED Archive: April, 2007).
In an essay entitled “Viruses of the Mind” (Free Inquiry, 1993), Dawkins argued that religion is an “accident of birth” and a mental “virus.” Religious beliefs are “mind-parasites” which breed upon “mystery.” According to Dawkins, the religious virus is adverse to reason and evidence. In the God Delusion Dawkins applies this theme to children. Dawkins declares that religion is the greatest danger facing children. “Christianity,” he asserts, “just as much as Islam, teaches children that unquestioning faith is a virtue. “You don’t have to make the case for what you believe,” he says (p. 346; cf. pp. 323, 347, 379). Apart from isolated personal attacks like those mentioned above, Dawkins presents no serious evidence or justification for that accusation. His accusation is categorically false. His own university was established as a Christian institution for the sake of pursuing the truth. The motto of Oxford is Dominus illuminatio mea: “The Lord is my light.” The Natural History Museum, where Dawkins has debated, and most of the oldest colleges and universities in the world were established by Christians. Harvard, the oldest and most revered of American schools, bears the motto: “Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae” (“Truth for Christ and the Church”) on the official seal. Students today may be surprised to learn that Harvard was originally established to train Christian ministers and that one of the founding “precepts” in 1646 was the belief that Jesus Christ is “the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning.” Typical of other American universities is Duke in Durham, North Carolina. Founded in 1924, there is a plaque in the center of the campus which states: “The aims of Duke University are to assert a faith in the eternal union of knowledge and religion set forth in the teachings and character of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” It’s not surprising. Scripture exhorts Christians: “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15). Dawkins’ ad hominems even extend to an astonishing assault upon the character of God as (among other things): “a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak” (p. 51). From a logical perspective, even if Dawkins’ outrageous comments were somehow true, it still wouldn’t address the issue of God’s existence.
3. Ad ignorantium (appeal to ignorance): This fallacy assumes that because something is unknown or seems unlikely, that fact can be used as evidence against its existence. One form of this fallacy is called the argument from personal incredulity. It looks like this: “If I can’t (or refuse) to believe this, then it can’t be true.” Dawkins commits this fallacy throughout the book. In the opening chapter he asserts his “commitment to naturalism.” This means that he “believes there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no supernatural creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe” (p. 35). In other words, he announces an unwillingness to believe evidence which might not support his view. This is not logical argument or scientific evidence. It’s a philosophical presupposition and statement of personal bias.
4. Ad populum (popularity appeal): The popularity of a belief isn’t relevant in science or logic. Truth isn’t democratic. It doesn’t depend on a majority vote. Nevertheless, Dawkins implies that atheistic evolution must be true because of what he calls “the overwhelming preponderance of atheists” among Nobel Prize winners, and in the membership of prestigious groups like the Royal Society, the National Academy of Sciences, and Mensa (a group of people with high IQs) (p.126-130). Even if Dawkins was right about intellectuals favoring atheism, it wouldn’t prove its truth. One of Dawkins’ heroes, Bertrand Russell, confessed his own disillusionment with intellectuals: “I had supposed that intellectuals loved truth, but I found here again that not 10 per cent of them prefer truth to popularity” (Autobiography of Bertrand Russell: London, 1962; vol. 2, p.17; cited in Paul Johnson, Intellectuals: Harper, 1988, p. 202). However, Dawkins’ statistics are questionable. In 2003 the Pulitzer-prize winning sociologist, Rodney Stark, presented evidence that “levels of religiousness [among science professors] are relatively high” (p. 194). After reviewing the current survey data, Stark concluded: ”But perhaps the most striking finding is that… faculty in the ‘hard’ sciences turn out to be far more likely to be religious than are their counterparts in the ‘softer’ social sciences: they attend church more regularly, are more likely to describe themselves as ‘deeply’ or ‘moderately’ religious [55-60 %] and to say they are ‘religiously conservative’” [34-40%], and are far more likely to claim religious affiliation” (For the Glory of God, Princeton U. Press: 2003, p. 195). Dawkins doesn’t seem to have looked very far. He omits many obvious names of eminent scientists who have been open about their religious convictions, including Henry Schaeffer III. Dr. Schaeffer (Ph.D. Stanford) is one of the most distinguished chemists in the world (U.C. Berkeley, 1969-1987), a Fellow of the Royal Society (London, 2005), a five-time nominee for the Nobel Prize, and an out-spoken Christian (Science and Christianity: Conflict or Coherence, The Apollos Trust, 2003). He is one of over five hundred doctoral-level scientists who have signed “A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism” which states: “We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life” (http://www.discovery.org/articleFiles/PDFs/100ScientistsAd.pdf).
5. Ad annis (chronological snobbery): This fallacy assumes that the age of a belief determines its truth or falsity. It can be argued in one of two ways: either that the antiquity of a belief (Appeal to Tradition) verifies its truth (since people have believed it for such a long time); or that the modernity of a belief (Appeal to Novelty) verifies its truth (since people today are so much more enlightened). Dawkins employs the second version, the “appeal to novelty,” repeatedly. For example, he dismisses the fact that Newton and most of the founders of science were “religious” as irrelevant because of the age in which they lived. “There was,” he implies, “[more] social and judicial pressure … to profess religion” back then (p. 124). Similarly, Dawkins asserts: “Great scientists who profess religion become harder to find through the twentieth century… they [now] stand out for their rarity” (p. 125). In a more shameful example, Dawkins dismisses the religious conversion of Anthony Flew (a renowned philosopher and famous atheist until 2004) as something which happened “in his old age” (Footnote, p. 106). See: Anthony Flew’s There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (New York: HarperOne, 2007).
6. Ipse dixit (false authority): This fallacy consists in claiming authority without justification or evidence. For example, Dawkins consistently presents the views of like-minded atheists as serious, credible authorities, and belittles those of Christians as trivial, with no other reason than their religious affiliation (or lack of it). For example, he subtly disparages Francis Collins, the former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute simply because he is a Christian. He understates his role and accomplishment in leading the successful multidisciplinary effort to map and sequence all human DNA and contrasts him with the “brilliant (and non-religious) ‘buccaneer’ of science, Craig Venter” (p. 125). In the same fashion Dawkins routinely hurls assertions of momentous import, without serious evidence or argument, as when he asserts that: “blasphemy, as the witty bumper sticker puts it, is a victimless crime” (p. 16; Preface to the Paperback Ed., 2008). “Witty bumper stickers” do not constitute a serious argument.
7. Straw man (misrepresentation): This fallacy misrepresents an opponent’s actual position through exaggeration or distortion. A good precaution is to ask an opponent whether or not you have stated his viewpoint clearly and accurately. Very few if any Christians will recognize themselves in Dawkins’ caricatures. He repeatedly accuses religion of demanding credulity (mindless belief) and of discouraging science (rational inquiry). For example, according to Dawkins, the great majority of Christians teach their children that: “unquestioning faith is a virtue” (p. 323) and that “truth comes from scripture rather than from evidence” (p. 379). Thus, he concludes: “Religious faith is an especially potent silencer of rational calculation… because it discourages questioning, by its very nature” (p. 346). Thus, he concludes: “Religious faith is an especially potent silencer of rational calculation… because it discourages questioning, by its very nature” (p. 346). Dawkins blandly assumes that all religions are basically the same in this regard. While his characterization may apply to some cults and false religions, it is categorically false when applied to historic Christianity. (For a more complete discussion see: False Dilemma)
B. Fallacies of Ambiguity (Confusion)
1. Composition (misapplication): This fallacy assumes that what is true of the parts of something must also be true of the whole. Dawkins commits this fallacy by treating evolution as a monolithic process, and refusing to distinguish between micro- and macro-evolution. No one denies micro-evolution. The evidence for adaptation and change within species is overwhelming. However, there is no such evidence for change between species (transmutation), nor for the appearance of life from non-life by natural processes (abiogenesis).
2. Equivocation (obscurantism): To equivocate is to mislead someone by confusing them. When a debater equivocates the proper response is to call out: “Distinguo!” (“I distinguish!”). Dawkins is guilty of equivocation on a grand scale. He refuses to distinguish between religions as radically different as Christianity and Islam. He insists on treating all religions as equally irrational, superstitious and unscientific. This broad generalization is grossly unfair and misleading. An equally unjustified tactic would be to treat alchemy and astrology as the equivalents of chemistry and astronomy. The motivation and freedom for scientific inquiry did not happen by accident. It came from a Biblical worldview towards which the Koran is suspicious and unfavorable. As Islamic scholar Salman Rushdie has pointed out: “Islam has failed to create a free society anywhere on earth” (Columbia U.; Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991). Freedom and encouragement for scientific study is unique to a Biblical worldview (See: Straw Man).
C. Fallacies of Presumption (Faulty Form)
1. False Dilemma (Either/Or): Dawkins presents a false option between two extremes. On the one hand he portrays science as the heroic, rational pursuit of facts. On the other hand he portrays religion as the hypocritical, irrational pursuit of faith. Some of his criticisms may apply to certain cults and false religions, but not to historic Christianity. Faith and facts are not opposites. There’s no necessary contradiction between the two. In fact, the Pulitzer-prize winning historian, Rodney Stark, has argued: ”not only that there is no inherent conflict between religion and science, but that Christian theology was essential for the rise of science" (For the Glory of God, Princeton & Oxford, 2003: p. 123). Dawkins argument is clearly distorted and false. For almost a millennium fides quaerens intellectum (“faith in search of understanding”) has been a Christian motto expressing the Christian motivation to seek the truth. It was Anselm’s dictum, echoing Augustine, about the positive relationship between faith and reason. All Biblically literate Christians know that they have been exhorted to use their minds to the best of their ability (Phil. 4:8); to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16); and to “always be prepared to make a defense to any one calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15). The oldest universities in the world, including Oxford, were founded by Christians who shared that conviction. Granted that Dawkins’ criticism may apply to some individuals or groups in the history of Christianity, but they have been the exception, not the rule.
Eminent historians and philosophers of science have acknowledged the unique formative role of Christianity in the origin of modern science. French-born American historian, teacher and cultural critic (Columbia U.: 1927-67) Jacques Barzun wrote that the ‘so-called warfare between science and religion [could] be seen as the warfare between two philosophies and perhaps two faiths, [a] dispute between the believers in consciousness and the believers in mechanical action; the believers in purpose and the believers in pure chance’” (Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage; U. Chicago Press, 1941). Dinesh D’Souza points out in his recent study, What’s So Great About Christianity, modern science relies upon an “unsupported belief” both in the rationality of the universe and of our own minds. In a lecture at Harvard University in 1925 the eminent British philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, asserted that “faith in the possibility of science… is an unconscious derivative of medieval theology” (Science and the Modern World: Free Press, p. 53).
Herbert Schneidau, in his widely acclaimed study of mythical cultures, Sacred Discontent: The Bible and Western Tradition (University of California Press: Berkeley, 1977), concluded that the Biblical worldview led to the rise of science and technology. By “desacralizing” nature, the Bible sanctioned critical, objective investigation of the world and a linear concept of time. Loren Eiseley, the late distinguished professor of Anthropology and the History of Science at the University of Pennsylvania went so far as to suggest that science was an “invention” of Christianity: “it is the Christian world which finally gave birth in a clear, articulate fashion to the experimental method of science itself” (Darwin’s Century: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1961; cited in Nancy Pearcey and Charles Thaxton, The Soul of Science, 1994; pp. 17-18). John Lennox, a Fellow in Mathematics and Philosophy of Science at Oxford, has pointed out to Dawkins (in formal debates) that the Natural History Museum (where they have debated) was originally “dedicated to God and the investigation of divine design” http://www.dawkinslennoxdebate.com/
2. Begging the Question (circular reasoning): Dawkins constantly assumes that which he purports to prove, namely, that a godless process of evolution is the cause of everything, including “apparent design.” For example, he asserts that: “Creative intelligences, being evolved, necessarily arrive late in the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it” (p. 52). Although Dawkins claims that he will “show” the reader evidence for this belief, he fails to deliver. When the issue comes up again later, he simply repeats the assertion: “Entities that are complex enough to be intelligent are products of an evolutionary process” (p. 98). Dawkins announces his “commitment to naturalism” in Chapter 1. He explains that: “An atheist in this sense of philosophical naturalist is somebody who believes there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no supernatural creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe” (p. 35; italics added). He seems unaware that he is making the same kind of unsupported faith commitment which he otherwise finds so inimical. In other words, Dawkins’ foundation is not facts or evidence, but a reductionistic faith in materialism. Naturalism assumes that nothing exists besides matter and energy. The end result of naturalism is self-contradiction. If our thoughts are nothing more than a random, bio-chemical process (p. 34), then we have no basis to believe that our thoughts are true. They are equivalent to the secretions of our kidneys and other physical organs. In Darwin’s (and Dawkins’) world, our thoughts need not be “true,” only “useful” (p. 413). But there’s no way to know which ideas are most useful at any given time. Only later will it be revealed which ideas “survive.” People are reduced to random metabolic units which receive and emit random sensory input. Although others might find this view dismal and dehumanizing, Dawkins claims to find it “liberating” and “emancipating” (p. 419-420).
When Dawkins is so transparent about his dislike for God, he opens himself to the charge of ‘theophobia,’ that is, a fear of (or revulsion against) God. C. S. Lewis identified this phenomenon and applied it to Sigmund Freud. As a result, Dr. Armand Nicholi, a professor at Harvard University has taught a course comparing the ideas of Freud and Lewis. In 2002 he published his findings in a book entitled: The Question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex and the Meaning of Life (New York: The Free Press). Lewis agreed with Freud on one basic thing, that human beings have a tendency to "suppress" unpleasant truths." However, Lewis disagreed with Freud regarding which truths we find most unpleasant, and which truths we try hardest to suppress. Like Dawkins, Freud asserted that we are most afraid of "being alone" (i.e. without God) and of "being unloved" (i.e. without God's love). Lewis disagreed. Lewis said that when he became a Christian he reaIized that for many years his greatest fear had been "not being alone" (i.e. not being free to do whatever he wanted) and afraid of "being judged" (i.e. accountable to God). Similarly, whereas Freud argued that we "project" our "wishes" for moral order and life after death by "creating" (an imaginary) heaven, Lewis argued that we "project" our "wishes" for personal freedom and supremacy by "creating" (an imaginary) kingdom of our own. (See Armand M. Nicholi, Jr.: The Question of God: The Free Press, 2002).
3. Post hoc ergo propter hoc (false cause): This fallacy makes the unjustified assumption that when one thing precedes another, the first must cause the second. Dawkins adds a peculiar twist to this fallacy by arguing that the ‘simple’ must always precede the ‘complex.’ He insists that in the history of the universe simple processes must always have preceded (and produced) more complex systems. On the one hand, as mentioned earlier, Dawkins asserts the creative power of (simple) naturalistic evolution: “Entities that are complex enough to be intelligent are products of an evolutionary process“ (p. 98). On the other hand, Dawkins denies the admissibility of (complex) divine creative agency: “Any entity capable of intelligently designing something as improbable as a … universe would have to be even more improbable than [a universe]” (p. 146).
The renowned philosopher, Anthony Flew, has called Dawkins’ argument “bizarre.” Dawkins offers no evidence in support of these assertions other than his admitted preference for any viewpoint which precludes divine activity. The logic of Dawkins’ argument (‘simple-always-precedes-complex’) is disproved by all human artistry and engineering as well as all forms of biological reproduction. The artist always precedes the work of art; the chicken always comes before the egg. If Dawkins’ logic was valid, then any human agency capable of designing something as improbable as a watch, a cathedral, or a spaceship would have to be considered “improbable.” There’s obviously something wrong with that. It is an accepted practice in logic to “infer to the most sufficient explanation.” In the debate about human origins, a strong argument can be made that only divine agency can account for human life and reason. By refusing to consider the possibility of divine creativity and causation, Dawkins ends up by threatening human creativity and causation as well.