My Thoughts After Reading “Atheist Delusions” by David Bentley Hart

Before I say anything else, I want to urge the reader not to allow the title of this book to color their perception of it any more than they can help. Whoever selected the title of “Atheist Delusions” may have done so in an attempt to grab the interest of today’s conflict thirsty, spectacle seeking, self-righteous intellectual crowd more so than to put an accurate heading on the book.

“Atheist Delusions” is, quite simply, an enormous book. Not in length, but in scope and vision. Hart proposes a different way of looking at the past, present, and future of the world; a different way of interpreting the philosophical, scientific, political, and religious narrative of the West. And not only are the scope of his topic and the ambition of his vision big, so are his knowledge and ability.

I read “Atheist Delusions” after reading “The God Delusion” and I think it would be illustrative to compare the two.

Dawkins is funnier. He is more accessible. He demands less. His is exactly the kind of book that becomes a 21st century best seller. Hart uses bigger words, longer sentences, longer paragraphs, a much larger vocabulary, and most importantly, more intricate and profound concepts. His is, in this respect, the kind of book that I imagine would have sold well 150 years ago.

To give the impression, however, that this book is mere contemplative philosophy would be very misleading. There are more facts in some of Hart’s individual chapters than in Dawkins’ whole book. I suspect that a genuine unbiased statistical analysis would reveal at least 10 times as many verifiably factual statements in “Atheist Delusions.” Hart certainly puts forth his fair share of opinions, no doubt, but it is refreshing to be given so much information to go along with it.

Historical information is presented in support of Hart’s thesis: that the typical modern narrative of the West – of ancient cultures, blossoming in rationality and scientific inquiry, followed by a great darkness and stagnation caused by the rise of Christianity with its blind submission to dogma, followed by a flourishing of mankind again as the shackles of belief are cast off and reason is championed once more – is a rhetorical myth constructed in the support of modernity’s underlying agenda. That agenda is a new conception of freedom, not as the submission to an underlying set of principles that govern reality but as the isolated action of the will, free from all such underlying, universal principles. In the old understanding of freedom, we unlocked our true potential and thus the freedom to soar as we learned to be true to our own nature and the nature of reality. The new, modern conception of freedom is one unencumbered by such pesky, metaphysical guidelines. It is freedom for freedom’s sake.

That narrative which has been constructed to that end, of Christianity as mankind’s historical obstruction of reason, was, generally, what I was indeed taught in school.

The wealth of history, complete with names, dates, and quotes from primary sources that are presented to counter this modern myth was (no pun intended) enlightening to me. I don’t think I have ever willingly read so many historical facts in my life. I learned a great deal, and walked away knowing that the textbooks I grew up with didn’t share the whole picture. The crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts, Galileo’s skirmishes with the Catholic Church, and the like were dealt with extensively. If you are wondering how in the world such historical facts could possibly be the subject of a book about the merits of Christianity, you will just have to read it and see.

If the book contains 10 times more facts than “The God Delusion”, it contains 20 times the depth of philosophy. Hart, for a man so well acquainted with history, is also an excellent articulator of profound metaphysical inquiry. I suspect that Dawkins would read much of what thrilled me in this book and scarcely be able to get anything intelligible out of it. I base this on the casual dismissal of theology and related philosophies that was typical in his own book and illustrative of his own narrow scope of expertise.

Hart puts things more blatantly when he speaks of “Richard Dawkins triumphantly adducing ‘philosophical’ arguments that a college freshmen midway through his first logic course could dismantle in a trice.” Thank you, David Bentley Hart, for confirming that I’m not going crazy.

In more constructively critical language, he speaks to the same kind of closed-mindedness which is typical of the New Atheists in his remark: “It is astonishing really, (and evidence that a good scientific education can still leave a person’s speculative aptitudes entirely undeveloped), how many very intelligent scientists cling to an illogical, inflexible, and fideistic certainty that empirical science should be regarded not only as a source of factual knowledge and theoretical hypotheses but as an arbiter of values or of moral or metaphysical truths.”

This kind of talk can easily be accused of being overly condescending or arrogant, especially when it is so infused with Hart’s large vocabulary. But Hart does reveal that he has a great deal of respect for many of Christianity’s enemies… just not the modern, uncreative, best-selling, simplistic ones.

His mastery of history sheds light on the present and the future. I cannot help but share a passage that I find a particularly piercing assessment of the present, as described in terms consistent with the book’s aforementioned thesis:

“The true essence of modernity is a particular conception of what it is to be free, as I have said; and the Enlightenment language of an ‘age of reason’ was always really just a way of placing a frame around the idea of freedom, so as to portray it as the rational autonomy and moral independence that lay beyond the intellectual infancy of ‘irrational’ belief. But we are anything but rationalists now, so we no longer need cling to the pretense that reason was ever our paramount concern; we are today more likely to be committed to ‘my truth’ than to any notion of truth in general, no matter where that might lead. The myth of ‘enlightenment’ served well to liberate us from any antique notions of divine or natural law that might place unwelcome constraints on our wills; but it has discharged its part and lingers on now only as a kind of habit of rhetoric. And now that the rationalist moment has largely passed, the modern faith in human liberation has become, if anything, more robust and more militant. Freedom – conceived as the perfect, unconstrained spontaneity of individual will – is its own justification, its own highest standard, its own unquestionable truth.”

When I read over my review I can’t help but agree with prospective readers that I sound painfully biased. Maybe it is unfair of me to compare works that are clearly on two different scholarly plains. Hart is a brilliant scholar and a philosopher, while Dawkins is an intelligent, snarky scientist. Then again, maybe it isn’t unfair. After all, Dawkins is Atheism’s front man, and ideological front men should be held to decent scholarly standards.

And are we not all biased towards what we perceive as the truth? Read the book and reach your own conclusions. I couldn’t possibly presume to demonstrate Hart’s conclusions as skillfully as he does in a thousand pages, let alone in a brief review.  I have merely tried to describe them.  The truth has always been open to our inquiry. That’s part of the beauty of life.

My Thoughts after Reading “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins

One of the reviews printed on the back of my copy of The God Delusion calls Richard Dawkins “one of the best nonfiction writers alive today.” Before reading the book, I found that description rather incredible. After reading the book, I must say that Dawkins is indeed a masterful writer. He is easy to read and often charmingly witty.

And so, if you are reading my response to his book in hopes of some “intellectual throw down” in which I mock Richard Dawkins for being a moron, you will be disappointed, and I’m not even particularly sorry to disappoint you. As a matter of fact, I intend to draw out not only what I think is shortsighted in his work, but also what I see as particularly insightful. He does, in many respects, have a piercing intellect, and I dare say that in many respects he is indeed more intelligent than I am.

To be quite candid, though, I am still a firm believer in God after reading his book. Mr. Dawkins’ chief aim is to destroy faith in God among the masses, and whatever secondary insights he may posses, this primary goal is one that I consider a grave miscalculation.

What Dawkins gets right:

  • Whether we like it or not, Einstein was something much closer to a pantheist than a proper Christian, and certainly did not believe in a personal God. While this fact has little if any bearing of the evidence for God’s existence, it is worth setting the record straight.
  • The book states a clear intention not to deal specifically with the Abrahamic God, but with the simple “God Hypothesis” in general. This is a wise choice not only because I doubt that he could constrain himself from descending into vitriol against my God and thus becoming derailed from proper argument, but I also recognize along with Dawkins that talking about a specific God isn’t of much use until you’ve decided on the existence of any God at all.
  • As Dawkins makes clear, and as was clearly stated in the Treaty with Tripoli in 1797, the United States is not a “Christian Nation” in any sort of categorical, governmental way. Nor were many of the founding fathers, such as Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, or Adams, in any way shape or form, Christian. In fact, many of them actively disdained Christianity. We, as Christians, lose credibility in all academic fields, when we try to rewrite history by cherry picking quotes.
  • Dawkins rightly admits that he does not “know” that God does not exist, but that his own inquiry leads him to believe that God’s existence is very improbably, and he consequently lives as if there is no God. Thus both he and I would agree, I think, that hard, mathematical proofs need not be furnished before we can take a stance on the issue of God’s existence. We can work with the evidence together and let it lead us to conclusions that are respectable.
  • The book contains several ridiculous or otherwise embarrassing quotes by believers. In many cases, Dawkins is right about the fact that the quote in question in ridiculous or embarrassing.
  • Dawkins is particularly adamant that it is wrong to teach children to accept blindly what they are told. They should not be taught that it is virtuous to believe something is spite of persuasive evidence to the contrary. They should not be discouraged from asking questions. I agree. Does Mr. Dawkins know that there are many Christians who encourage open and honest discussion, even among children?
  • Dawkins suggests that we should not refer to young children as “Christian children” or “Muslim children,” etc. as they are too young to decide what they believe on those matters. I understand his apprehension, and in a sense, I agree. Each person gets to decide their own religion or lack thereof, and makes those decisions, perhaps with increasing conviction, as they get older.
  • In the final section of the book, Dawkins allows himself to sort of ramble a bit about how amazing science is in general, without making any real comment on God. It is some of the best reading I have done in a while. His passion for science is evident and inspiring, and the specific insights that he shares from contemporary science are thought provoking and wonderful.

What Dawkins gets wrong:

  • The very idea that any religion makes any meaningful claim that science cannot be used to prove or disprove is simply assumed to be ridiculous. Dawkins speaks as though no question of ultimate meaning or purpose, or morality, or of any philosophical question that religion might comment on, is outside the jurisdiction of science. For someone who in other places in the book condemns black and white, dogmatic, unnecessarily bipolar thinking, this oversight of his is unfortunate. It makes the unwarranted assumption that all realities are observable by the five sense organs.
  • Dawkins thinks that superhuman aliens probably do exist because of the Drake equation, which plugs in seven variables and spits out the probability that such is so. He admits that some of the variables in the equation are still very difficult to estimate. No kidding. One of the variables is: the percentage of those planets that have conditions that are favorable to life that actually do develop life. Since we’ve seen life spontaneously arrive from non-life so many times, we should definitely have a good idea of what that number would be, right?
  • Later in the book, Dawkins suggests that the chances of life spontaneously arising from nonlife on a planet that is suitable for it are about one in a billion. I’m quite surprised that such a respected biologist believes that. I have been unable in my searching to uncover anything that makes abiogenesis even seem possible. I would encourage those interested to investigate themselves, with all of the scientific depth necessary to understand the topic, rather than take Dawkins’ word for it on this one.
  • Dawkins starts his dissection of arguments for God’s existence by presenting Aquinas’ thirteenth century proofs, and oversimplifying them. Honestly, why not address contemporary arguments as presented by leading contemporary apologists, and quote them, so as not to oversimplify things?
  • Dawkins doesn’t actually seem to understand the Cosmological argument. I’m sure he is more than intelligent enough to do so, he simply hasn’t taken the time. He is so ready to find it bankrupt that he doesn’t pause long enough to hear its claim. Throughout the book, in fact, he seems surprising inept at philosophy, despite his amazing intellect.
  • Dawkins reveals his ignorance of the cosmological argument in the comment about believers that: “They make the entirely unwarranted assumption that God Himself is immune to the regress.” If he understood the Cosmological argument at all, he would realize that the whole proposition that the argument proves is that an entity that is immune to the regress of causality must exist.  You must disprove the logical structure of the argument, or disprove one of the premises, in order to refute that claim. But he doesn’t, and you can’t. It’s a solid argument for the fact that some entity that is immune to the regress of movement, causation, contingency, etc. necessarily must exist.
  • Dawkins goes on to say that even if we take the “dubious luxury” of postulating a terminator to the infinite regress of causality, there is no reason to believe that it should have any of the properties normally ascribed to God. But as contemporary apologists have pointed out, and as he fails to even address, such an entity would have been the entity that started everything in motion, as God is said to have done, and would be outside of the laws that normally govern our universe, as God is said to be. And since such an entity has no preceding cause, it seems that it would be eternal, as God is said to be. Etc.
  • Dawkins spends way too much time addressing silly arguments for God’s existence that no one makes anymore, or pointing out that various unscientific arguments are in fact unscientific. Fun reading for a smug atheist, but not contributing to the real discussion at hand.
  • Dawkins refers to God using the concept of the “Ultimate Boeing 747.” What he means by this is that a God complex enough to design our world would Himself have to be even more complex than the world, and that such a God would then need an even more complex explanation. This is very ironic since Dawkins spends so much of the book talking about how we need to have our consciousness’s raised by Darwinian natural selection so that we can realize that complex things can arise from simplicity through natural processes. If such is the case, why can God not be self-causing in the same sense that biodiversity supposedly is? In this manner he also assumes that the cause of the universe is bound by the same kinds of rules that bind the universe itself, which he would know is untrue if he had understood the Cosmological argument.
  • Dawkins seems to think that explaining how biodiversity could have arisen without intelligent guidance answers the Teleological question exhaustively. First of all, he presents no evidence that genetic mutations are sufficient to drive Darwinian natural selection. Evidence that I continue to wait for. Secondly, explaining biodiversity is such a small part of the question. What about the origin of life? What about the leap from prokaryote to eukaryote, which Dawkins admits in the book, might be even more unlikely than abiogenesis itself? Neither does he present convincing evidence as to how our universe is so fine tuned for the conditions necessary for any type of order at all. He simply points out that, however unlikely it is that everything should be so fine-tuned, it obviously is since we are here. Multiverse theories are suggested. There is no evidence presented to support them.
  • The many theories and speculations presented as to how religion might have come about as a result of evolution and how we might have evolved to be moral creatures are all very interesting. They reveal, though, just how open for speculation macro evolutionary theory is. It is a theory that deals with such an incredibly complex system in such a general way that reasonable speculations are endless and difficult to confirm or deny.
  • Dawkins continually blames the concept of religion itself for so much of what rightly ought to be blamed on ridiculous people doing ridiculous things. Yes, they are using religion as license to be ridiculous, but the problem is not religion itself.

The book was a fascinating read and often enjoyable.

I was disappointed, though, by the lack of scientific depth regarding Darwinian natural selection and the processes that supposedly drive it. This is not a science book.

I was also disappointed by how little of it was devoted to addressing arguments for God’s existence. This was due to the fact that Dawkins, who appears to care very little indeed for philosophy, didn’t give them the time of day necessary to be properly understood or responded too.  Much like all of the clips that I see online of him intellectually destroying uneducated people who cannot articulate arguments well, he seemed to do a lot of demolition work on caricatured ideas that I wasn’t particularly invested in to begin with.

Ultimately, however charming his wit may be, it is tragic to see someone with such talents using them in such a manner.  It is sad that we live in a world where so many religious people do so many terrible or ridiculous things that he would be turned so far away from any kind of religious faith.  It is sad that he would be so unacquainted with what God is really like that he can speak ill of Him in good conscience.  It is beyond sad, it is a tragedy.

If I could give Dawkins some advice, it would be to take philosophy more seriously, and to use his imagination a bit more when considering what is really going on in this fantastically amazing universe.