Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, First Mariner Books, 2006.
The God Delusion (2006) is a passionate diatribe against religious faith, particularly the Christian faith. Richard Dawkins begins by attempting to show that the traditional arguments for the existence of the Judeo-Christian God are “vacuous” and “infantile.” Next, he offers his own kind of proof for the non-existence of God. His main argument against the existence of God is that “any God capable of designing a universe…tuned to lead to our evolution, must be a supremely complex and improbable entity who needs an even bigger explanation than the one he is supposed to provide.” The assumption made in the argument is that a being capable of creating a complex universe is at least, if not more, complex than the universe itself. Furthermore, complexity is related to probability – the more complex, the less probable. Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist. After making his case for a godless universe, Dawkins offers a purely natural explanation for the origins of religion and morality. Dawkins then critiques the (im)morality of the Christian Scriptures. Finally, Dawkins dedicates a chapter to justifying his overt hostility toward religion. Hostility is warranted, even required, because religion is dangerous; it is the cause of widespread ignorance, pernicious evil, blatant bigotry and grotesque violence. The book concludes by arguing that implanting religion into the mind of an innocent child is a grievous wrong, tantamount to child abuse.
Evaluating the Moral Argument Against the Existence of God
The book is full of moral claims. Dawkins aims to refute Christianity on a scientific level in other books, but the arguments of this book are primarily moral arguments. Therefore, this brief review will narrow the focus to some of the moral assumptions and accusations found throughout the book. Basically, Dawkins articulates a two-pronged moral argument. First, we don’t need God for morality because the origin of morality can be explained by Darwinian evolution. Second, the morality of the Bible and therefore Christianity is primitive, abhorrent, and evil. It’s past time for it to go.
Let’s begin with the first part of the argument – God isn’t necessary for morality because our convictions about right and wrong originate in our evolutionary past. Admittedly, Darwinian evolution appears unfit to explain moral virtue. Natural selection and the so-called “selfish-gene” would seem to work against admirable moral behavior. However, closer examination of how these principles work evidences how humans developed a sense of right and wrong. Here are three Darwinian reasons that explain the roots of morality.
The first reason is “kin altruism.” This means that genes have programed certain organisms to care for similar organisms for the sake of their own survival. Dawkins writes, “Genes ensure their own selfish survival by influencing organisms to behave altruistically” (247). We behave for self-preservation. Secondly, there is reciprocal altruism: “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” (247-48). Do good to others because then they will do good to you; harm others and they will harm you. Third, a good reputation has survival value, especially among a species that has developed the ability to communicate verbally. Having a bad reputation makes for a hard life. Therefore, being morally “upright” has social benefits. According to Dawkins, then, we have been programmed by evolutionary processes to be moral for the sake of survival. These Darwinian reasons for moral behavior explain the origin of morality, and so he concludes: “We now have...reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or ‘moral’ towards each other” (251).
In summary, morality is hard-wired into human nature by evolutionary process. Therefore, God and religion are unnecessary to explain morality. Dawkins cites research to tighten his argument. The research indicated that there is no substantial difference in the way individuals of varying religious backgrounds, including atheists, react to moral dilemmas. The similar moral responses are explained by our genetic disposition to act a certain way, not religious belief.
Below are four counter-arguments from a Christian perspective.
First, a hard-wired morality is consistent with a Christian worldview. An inner sense of moral obligation, instead of a product of Darwinian evolution, is the result of every person being made in the image of God. We are moral creatures by nature, though our sense of what is right and wrong has been distorted sense the fall. Nevertheless, every person has a God-given conscience and the moral law of God is written on their hearts (Romans 2:15). This explains why people of varying religious backgrounds may act in a similar way; all human beings have an innate, undeniable sense of morality, whether or not they believe in God.
Second, the Dawkins-Darwinian model of morality doesn’t have a basis for real moral obligation. Surely, Dawkins would affirm that we should be kind and do good to others, but how do you get moral obligation from impersonal evolutionary processes? Even if we grant for the sake of argument that morality is the product of Darwinian-evolution, there is still no ground for moral obligation. Moral “ought” does not exist in Dawkins’s world.
Third, Dawkins has no way of defining right and wrong, good and evil. Just ask the question: On the basis of Dawkins’s worldview, would it be it morally wrong for me to harm others if it preserved my gene pool? If morality arose from unguided genetic programming for the sake of survival, is anything immoral if it’s done for the sake of kin preservation? We instinctively say “Yes!” but that’s because we are image bearers of God, not meat machines just trying to survive.
Fourth, Dawkins’s explanation of morality undermines moral virtue and altruism. When someone does good or shows love to another, in reality, according to Dawkins, that person is acting selfishly. All good acts are ultimately selfish acts. All love is ultimately self-serving. Dawkins anticipates this objection: “Do not, for one moment, think of such Darwinizing as demeaning or reductive of the noble emotions of compassion and generosity” (253). But such Darwinizing is demeaning and reductive because it reduces all virtue to self-preservation.
Take altruistic acts as an example – making costly sacrifices for the sake of others. Some readers will have seen the image of the brave man who used his own body as a human shield to protect a woman during the recent Las Vegas mass-shooting. How does Darwinian morality explain such an act? Answer: it’s an evolutionary misfire. Kin altruism – a genetic disposition which developed while man was a clan creature – took over, as it were, but it was misdirected to a stranger. Thus, the man in Las Vegas was motivated by an evolutionary mistake.
Can we explain morality without God? It depends on what we mean by “without God.” We can intellectually reject the existence of God but still have a sense of morality because we live in God’s moral universe and we remain moral creatures made in his image with an innate, God-given sense of right and wrong. But without God, in Dawkins’s world, there is no basis for moral obligation, no way of objectively defining right and wrong, and the moral virtue which we praise and admire is reduced to self-preservation or evolutionary misfires.
In recent years, the worldview Dawkins argues for has gained plausibility, at least among certain groups living in the Western world. However, its moral implications are often ignored. Could that be because its moral implications are undesirable and, in fact, unlivable? This is not to suggest that Dawkins is wrong just because we don’t like where the worldview leads. Rather, it is to argue that people intuitively know that morality is more than self-preservation and that altruistic acts are more than evolutionary misfires. That human intuition is not an evolutionary illusion; it’s a God-given awareness. We perceive that there is more to morality than kin altruism, reciprocal altruism, and maintaining a good reputation. And even if we deny it on the intellectual level, we at least live as though there are moral obligations, objective moral norms, and self-sacrificing moral actions that cannot be reduced to evolutionary mistakes.
What about the other side of the moral argument that Christian morality – based on the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments – is primitive, abhorrent and evil? Many responses can and should be made, but one will have to suffice here.
A Christian apologist by the name of Cornelius Van Til once wrote, “Anti-theism presupposes theism.” Dawkins illustrates the point Van Til so economically stated. Notice, when Dawkins argues that Christian Scripture is immoral, he presupposes certain things are true in order for his argument to even make sense. He presupposes some kind of objective moral standard and the reality of good and evil. But how can Dawkins account for objective moral norms and the moral categories of good and evil on the basis of his own worldview? He can’t. Darwinism can’t provide objective moral standards, nor can it define good and evil. It can only give us a genetic disposition to survive. Therefore, Dawkins has no ground to stand on when he makes a moral argument against Christianity. He must unwittingly rely upon the Christian worldview which has grounds for objective moral norms in order to make his argument. Put another way, Dawkins presupposes God to argue against God.
We can state this differently. For the argument that Christianity is absolutely immoral to mean anything at all, then a personal, moral, absolute God must exist. Why? Because absolute moral standards do not arise from impersonal processes (i.e., evolution); they can only arise within a personal universe. Someone might respond and say we can ground moral standards in non-absolute persons, collectively or individually. That is to say, morality can be grounded in a culture or an individual’s personal opinions. However, if moral standards are grounded in non-absolute persons, whether subject to a culture or person, they are merely subjective standards. And subjective standards lack necessity and authority because they are not absolute. For morality to be absolute it must be grounded in a Personal Absolute. That Personal Absolute is the true and living God. Therefore, while Dawkins makes absolute moral claims about the God of the Bible, he unwittingly depends on God in order to make his argument in the first place. If God doesn’t exist, his argument is non-sense.
The aim here is not to respond to the examples cited by Dawkins of the alleged immorality of Scripture. Others have already ably done so. The point here is that Dawkins doesn’t have grounds to make his argument without presupposing certain things that are true only if Christianity is true. He relies on Christianity while trying to deny it. Objective moral standards only exist if a personal and absolute God exists. If Dawkins wants to reject the existence of that Personal Absolute, then he needs to come to terms with his own worldview and its implications: If morality is rooted in Darwinian evolution, you cannot have moral standards, and therefore you have no basis to argue against the supposed immorality of the Bible.