Although a case could be made for Sam Harris, with the death of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins ascends to the position of the world’s most prominent and loquacious atheist. Cementing his status is his latest book, a memoir, entitled An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist. Though it ostensibly describes his career as an evolutionary biologist, it continues his relentless attack against theistic religion first articulated in The Selfish Gene and later developed in The Blind Watchmaker and in The God Delusion. There is a futility in debating atheists like Dawkins. Even if his arguments are rebutted, it will not result in any concession on his part. Neither he nor any atheist like him will suddenly adopt religious faith should the weakness of their reasoning be exposed. Nevertheless, failing to counter the atheists’ arguments suggests they are incontrovertible, which is most certainly not the case.
For example, Dawkins argues that organized religions have expanded through warfare and more violence has been perpetrated in the name of God than for other reasons. It is true that Islam extended its reach through forced conversions. It is also true that Christianity spread through winning wars as much as winning souls. But this was by and large not the case for Judaism and certainly not he case for Buddhism and Hinduism. Dawkins is guilty of making an unjustified generalization. Further, Dawkins conveniently ignores that the greatest atrocities in history were perpetrated by the godless regime of Nazi Germany, and the Communist regimes of the Soviet Union, China, and Cambodia. To be sure, history is filled with episodes of violence. But to ascribe the bulk of them to religious warfare is simply wrong.
In some cases, Dawkins reveals an unforgivable ignorance. He lambasts the God of the Bible as cruel and genocidal without acknowledging that what was prescribed for the Canaanites was proscribed for all other people and that even a champion of the Scottish enlightenment like David Hume advocated the wholesale eradication of those barbarians who “observed no rules even of war” and threatened civilization. He condemns the law of retaliation without noting that a qualifying text reduces the “eye for an eye” to monetary compensation. Worse still, Dawkins assumes that the Bible represents the fullest and latest expression of Judaism (and Christianity), which is patently absurd.
Dawkins claims it is not belief in God that makes people ethical but fear of punishment. He likes to point to the fact that during the Montreal police strike of 1969, a major outbreak of looting ensued. The same occurred in Boston in 1919 and in Melbourne in 1923. But sociologists who have studied these cases do not share Dawkins’ conclusion. In fact, the experts are amazed at the relatively few who broke the law even when they stood a good chance of never being caught. The really remarkable feature of these police strikes is not that some otherwise law-abiding people went on a rampage but that so many more refused to go along. Moreover, Dawkins steadfastly asserts that atheists are probably more moral than theists. While there are no comprehensive studies to back his assertion, there is some information that refutes it. Eva Fogelman’s study of Holocaust rescuers shows that while not all rescuers were “religious” – meaning church-going – all believed in God and confessed to a religious/moral upbringing.
Dawkins over-arching argument is that religion was necessary, perhaps, during the formative and primitive stages of humanity. But with the advent of science, religious explanations have been supplanted by empirical ones. But what Dawkins and his ilk fail to acknowledge is that science can only provide limited explanations. For instance, cosmology may be able to explain how the world came into being but cannot explain why. Quantum mechanics can explain many aspects of physics but includes phenomena that are essentially inexplicable. In effect, scientists, too, accept some doctrines as a matter of faith. In the end, however, it is a question of which faith will provide a stronger foundation for civilization and a program for joining people together. Here Dawkins is most certainly wrong.
Exposing the weaknesses of Dawkins, however, does not mean that belief in God is confirmed. Belief is not contingent on argument but on attitude.