Evolutionary biologist H. Allen Orr has this lengthy essay in the current issue of The New York Review of Books. Officially it’s a review of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Joan Roughgarden’s Evolution and Christian Faith: Reflections of an Evolutionary Biologist, and Lewis Wolpert’s Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origin of Belief. Actually, though, Orr says almost nothing about those latter two books.
Orr begins by describing his admiration for much of Dawkins’ previous work. (He describes The Selfish Gene as the best work of popular science ever written). This is meant as a prelude to what Orr fancies to be a devastating smackdown of The God Delusion. So before explaining why many of his criticism’s are wide of the mark, let me first express my own admiration for Orr’s writing. His own essays on evolution and creationism are always insightful, and his book Speciation, coauthored with Jerry Coyne, is a must read for anyone seriously interested in evolutionary biology.
Now let’s see what Orr has to say about Dawkins.
After summarzing the contents of Dawkins’ book, Orr repeats the standard complaint that Dawkins does not deal seriously with the subtleties of religious thought. Orr writes:
The result is The God Delusion, a book that never squarely faces its opponents. You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins’s book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?), no effort to appreciate the complex history of interaction between the Church and science (does he know the Church had an important part in the rise of non-Aristotelian science?), and no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes (does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they’re terminally ill?).
Instead, Dawkins has written a book that’s distinctly, even defiantly, middlebrow. Dawkins’s intellectual universe appears populated by the likes of Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Carl Sagan, the science popularizer, both of whom he cites repeatedly. This is a different group from thinkers like William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein–both of whom lived after Darwin, both of whom struggled with the question of belief, and both of whom had more to say about religion than Adams and Sagan. Dawkins spends much time on what can only be described as intellectual banalities: “Did Jesus have a human father, or was his mother a virgin at the time of his birth? Whether or not there is enough surviving evidence to decide it, this is still a strictly scientific question.”
Let’s take it from the top. Orr accuses Dawkins of not squarely facing his opponents, and then rattles off a list of examples meant to establish that point. In reality he only establishes that he has not apprehended Dawkins’ targets.
Dawkins provides no serious discussion of Jewish or Christian theology? Of course not, because such theology is mostly irrelevant to how religion is actually practiced. Theology is an academic pursuit, and like many such pursuits it concerns itself primarily with esoterica far removed from people’s actual lives. Much Christian theology in particular tends to take the form of viewing the Bible as a complex cipher, one that requires years of training to understand properly.
And since Orr is criticizing Dawkins’ superficiality, it is a bit rich for him to reduce Augustine’s views to the slogan that he rejected biblical literalism. Augustine did take the view that the Bible should be interpreted in as literal a way as possible, and in some of his writing he even endorsed a young-Earth position. He was willing to countenance a somewhat allegorical interpretation of Genesis, but that was only because he felt the Bible should not be read in a way that contradicts what clear scientific evidence is telling us. A worthy sentiment, certainly, but not one that finds much theological justification.
At any rate, Dawkins is perfectly aware that many serious Christians do not accept Biblical literalism. So what? Dawkins’ book is primarilty about the reasonableness of believing in a creator God, and on the social impact of widespread religious belief. The minutiae of different schools of Christian thought just isn’t the concern of this book.
Next up is Dawkins’ failure to wade into the internecine disputes about the status of religious propositions. That is because for most believers there is no such dispute. For them religious propositions have precisely the same meaning as every other sort of proposition. When they discuss God they are talking about a real entity, with real motivations and desires, who really cares about the people he literally created from nothing. It is these people, not some small cadre of academic navel-gazers, Dawkins means to address.
I’m going to gamble and say that Dawkins is familiar with the role of the church in the rise of modern science. This is a common talking point among those who wish to argue that science and religion are not necessarily hostile to one another. It is unclear to me why anyone thinks it is relevant to modern discussions of theism and atheism. The church funded scientific investigation as a way of further understanding God’s glory. The idea was that nature and its workings were themselves a sort of divine revelation, meant to conpliment the revelation found in Scripture. It’s a lovely notion, and science should be grateful that at least some Chrstians of the Middle Ages felt that way. But the fact remains that as soon as scientists started turning up bits of data that contradicted Scripture, the relationship between science and religion got distinctly chilly.
Dawkins doesn’t try to understand the attitudes of religious people? Well, score one for Orr.
Orr sums up all of this intellecutalizing by protesting that Dawkins’ book is too middlebrow. Of course it’s middlebrow! It was intended as a popular-level book published by a mainstream outfit that people are actually intended to read. Dawkins frequently refers people to other books that give more detailed coverage of the topics he was discussing. One example is J.L. Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism. Many critics have cited this book as one people should read if they want, you know, a serious treatment of arguments for the existence of God. Now don’t misunderstand me: Mackie is brilliant, his arguments are spot-on, and the world is a better place because he wrote that book. But, I’m sorry, his book is incredibly dense, difficult to read, and frankly, incredibly boring. And I say that as someone who finds this subject fascinating. Dawkins meant for his book to be read, you see, and that sometime means giving short shrift to the views of Wittgenstein and James.
Orr eventually turns away from listing things he wishes Dawkins had discussed to replying to the things Dawkins really does discuss. And this is where Orr really steps in it. Try to believe that a smart guy like Orr actually wrote the following paragraph:
The reason seems clear. The first argument leads to a conclusion Dawkins despises, while the second leads to one he loves. Dawkins, so far as I can tell, is unconcerned that the central argument of his book bears more than a passing resemblance to those clever philosophical proofs for the existence of God that he dismisses. This is unfortunate. He could have used a healthy dose of his usual skepticism when deciding how much to invest in his own Ultimate Boeing 747 argument. Indeed, one needn’t be a creationist to note that Dawkins’s argument suffers at least two potential problems. First, as others have pointed out, if he is right, the design hypothesis essentially must be wrong and the alternative naturalistic hypothesis essentially must be right. But since when is a scientific hypothesis confirmed by philosophical gymnastics, not data? Second, the fact that we as scientists find a hypothesis question-begging–as when Dawkins asks “who designed the designer?”– cannot, in itself, settle its truth value. It could, after all, be a brute fact of the universe that it derives from some transcendent mind, however question-begging this may seem. What explanations we find satisfying might say more about us than about the explanations. Why, for example, is Dawkins so untroubled by his own (large) assumption that both matter and the laws of nature can be viewed as given? Why isn’t that question-begging?
Orr is right that others have made his first point, but he does not bathe himself in glory by following their bad example. There is nothing in Dawkins’ argument that tries to rule out design by philosophical gymnastics. He is merely pointing out that invoking design as the explanation for the universe leads to profound conceptual difficulties. Explaining the universe by concocting an entity that is even harder to explain is about as fruitful as saying the Earth rests on the back of a giant tortoise. It just raises more questions then it solves.
These difficulties are sufficiently severe, in his view, to make us very skeptical of design explanations. The situation is all the worse for people who argue that it is the very complexity of the universe that triggers a design inference. In that case, the very same logic that led us to hypothesize God in the first place is what requires that we provide an explanation for God.
In replying to this argument you can try arguing that God is actually very simple, or that he is not the sort of entity that requires an explanation, or that it is reasonable to assume God is eternal but that we know from the Big Bang that the universe had a beginning. These replies are inadequate, but they at least meet Dawkins’ argument head-on. What you don’t get to do is argue that Dawkins’ argument makes design seem very unlikely, so clearly he must be wrong. That is all Orr has done here.
The second point is even sillier. Yes, of course, God’s existence might be a brute fact of the universe. We might be stuck with it in spite of the conceptual issues it raises. Dawkins would say (as would Orr, I suspect) that if you are going to go the design route, you had better have an awfully good argument for doing so. At present there is no such argument. But the bare possibility that God exists despite the lack of a good argument, and despite the conceptual difficulties it raises, is the reason Dawkins entitled this chapter of his book, “Why There Almost Certainly is No God.”
Having done silly and sillier, let’s move on to silliest. That’s Orr’s closing remark about Dawkins’ own assumptions being question-begging. Why can the laws of nature be taken as given? Because they are given! We know the laws of nature exist. We’re stuck with them. The fact is that when you are reasoning about the origin of the universe, you have to start with something. That is unfortunate, but that’s the way it is. So Dawkins’ takes the attitude that at least by going his route we explain the universe in terms of the simplest things that are known to exist. Orr can call this a large assumption if he wishes, but surely it is smaller than the assumption made in creating, from whole cloth, an entity with mind-numbing supernatural powers, and arguing that that is the thing that has always existed.
Moving on, we should also comment on the following bizarre paragraph:
The reason Dawkins thinks he has something to say about God is, of course, clear: he is an evolutionary biologist. And as we all know, Darwinism had an early and noisy run-in with religion. What Dawkins never seems to consider is that this incident might have been, in an important way, local and contingent. It might, in other words, have turned out differently, at least in principle. Believers could, for instance, have uttered a collective “So what?” to evolution. Indeed some did. The angry reaction of many religious leaders to Darwinism had complex causes, involving equal parts ignorance, fear, politics, and the sheer shock of the new. The point is that it’s far from certain that there is an ineluctable conflict between the acceptance of evolutionary mechanism and the belief that, as William James put it, “the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe.” Instead, we and Dawkins might simply be living through the reverberations of an interesting, but not especially fundamental, bit of Victorian history. If so, evolutionary biology would enjoy no particularly exalted pulpit from which to preach about religion.
Let us begin with the obvious: The reason Orr was asked to review this book is that he is an evolutionary biologist. If biologists have no particular qualifications for discussing this topic, one wonders why he didn’t tell the editor of the NYRB to find a theologian instead.
And I suspect that Dawkins’ intention in writing this book had little to do with a desire to put shiny new ideas down on paper for the first time. Probably his reasons were more prosaic: He has a view of this subject that is not well-represented in mass-market literature, especially in this country, and he has the clout and the recognizability to actually get such a book published.
But it’s the rest of this paragraph that gets really weird. Religious hostility to evolution was born out of ignorance, fear, politics and sheer shock of the new? Maybe. But a better explanation is that religious hostility was born out of the entirely correct realization that Darwin’s work posed a genuine threat to their beliefs. Many believers responded to Darwin with a “So what?” Show me a believer who had that reaction and I’ll show you someone who either didn’t understand Darwin’s work, or made a point of not thinking carefully about it. You might be able to reconcile traditional Christian belief with evolution, but it requires some serious mental engagement to do so. Orr admits as much in his next paragraph:
None of this is to say that evolutionary biology cannot inform our view of religion. It can and does. At the very least it insists that the Lord works in mysterious ways. More generally, it demands rejection of anything approaching biblical literalism. There are facts of nature–including that human beings evolved on the African savanna several million years ago–and these facts are not subject to negotiation.
So apparently a thorough understanding of evolution does enhance your qualifications for discussing evolution. This admission pretty seriously undercuts the point, such as it is, of the previous paragraph.
After all this Orr bashing, let me close with one place where I think he gets it right. As much as I liked Dawkins’ book, and as much as I think in nearly all cases his arguments are better than those of his critics, there are some places where I think Dawkins gets it wrong. Orr nails one of them:
Part of Dawkins’s difficulty is that his worldview is thoroughly Victorian. He is, as many have noted, a kind of latter-day T.H. Huxley. The problem is that these latter days have witnessed blood-curdling experiments in institutional atheism. Dawkins tends to wave away the resulting crimes. It is, he insists, unclear if they were actually inspired by atheism. He emphasizes, for example, that Stalin’s brutality may not have been motivated by his atheism. While this is surely partly true, it’s a tricky issue, especially as one would need to allow for the same kind of distinction when considering religious institutions. (Does anyone really believe that the Church’s dreadful dealings with the Nazis were motivated by its theism?)
In any case, it’s hard to believe that Stalin’s wholesale torture and murder of priests and nuns (including crucifixions) and Mao’s persecution of Catholics and extermination of nearly every remnant of Buddhism were unconnected to their atheism. Neither the institutions of Christianity nor those of communism are, of course, innocent. But Dawkins’s inability to see the difference in the severity of their sins– one of orders of magnitude–suggests an ideological commitment of the sort that usually reflects devotion to a creed.
This, alas, is correct, One of the weaknesses of Dawkins’ book is that he frequently writes as if the really important distinction in forging a civil, livable society is theism vs. atheism. It isn’t. The important distinctions are secular society vs. government involvement in religion, and rational thought and evidence vs. irrational faith and revelation. You can reasonably say that theism is more closely associated with the bad parts of those last two dichotomies, and atheism is more closely associated with the good parts. But atheism good / theism bad is not born out by the evidence.
Anyway, go read the rest of Orr’s essay. I think most of his major points are wrong, but he is an engaging and interesting writer nonetheless.