Leslie Buck

Richard Dawkins respects neither religion in general nor Christianity in particular. If you find this distressful, The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006) is not for you. But if you can let disrespect pass over you (and, after all, we have seen much worse than Dawkins) the book offers an instructive and entertaining read. Dawkins is particularly informative on his own subject, evolutionary biology, and he uses his knowledge to demolish so-called creation science, a topic which, I must admit, I find only slightly less wacky than that of flying saucers.

Dawkins also savages fundamentalism. If we are discomforted by this, then to the extent that we have allowed fundamentalism to flourish we deserve to be mocked. On the other hand he proceeds much of the time, as many reviewers have pointed out, by knocking down straw men and it is true that a lot of what he says about our faith is a travesty of what we believe. However, while it is not difficult to show him to be wrong in these respects a better tactic is to refute him on his own grounds, that is, on his dismissal of metaphysics and his espousal of scientific logic.

By his own admission Dawkins is an avowed materialist. This does not prevent him in his final chapter (amusingly entitled "The mother of all burkas") in indulging in a panegyric on what revelations await us as scientific knowledge advances. Perhaps, as he claims, we possess at present an inadequate model of the real world, but the assertion that some other world is more real than this world is of the same quality as the assertion that God underlies the real world. If he scoffs at the metaphysical nature of the second assertion why does he not scoff at the first?

As for scientific logic, Dawkins claims that the God hypothesis can be tested scientifically, implying that, given pertinent evidence, the hypothesis is falsifiable. This is because, contrary to intuition, we can never fully verify an assertion such as "All swans are white" because when we go to test it we may fail to find the black swan hiding out of sight. But if we find just one black swan the assertion is uncontrovertibly falsified. In short, scientific logic hangs on falsification, not verification.

In fact, Dawkins does not attempt to falsify his hypothesis but instead amends it to assert that it is not false but highly improbable. But probability statements, like non-falsifiable statements, are not scientific assertions. To say "There is a thirty percent chance of rain tomorrow" is saying something that cannot be falsified and nor, for that matter, verified because whether it rains or not the assertion holds.

This does not imply that the assertion is meaningless, only that it is not scientific. Thus Dawkins has subtly evaded his espousal of scientific logic. So although his argument appears persuasive, he has really only executed a sleight of hand.

From the point of view of faith, Dawkins has rendered us a service in describing (and ridiculing) some of the false gods which we set up in place of the true God. Perhaps we should be grateful for this. I don't wish to go so far as to rank him with the Hebrew prophets, but if he has succeeded in making us examine more closely our understanding of God, he has done well.

From the point of view of faith, Dawkins has rendered us a service in describing (and ridiculing) some of the false gods which we set up in place of the true God.