Following a recent Unbelievable? featuring Richard Dawkins, author Dr Peter Harris shares his thoughts about the infamous atheist
In his forthcoming book, The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God: Why New Atheism Grew Old and Secular Thinkers Are Considering Christianity Again, Justin Brierley proposes that New Atheism has fallen off its cultural perch and a new pro-religion receptivity has emerged among atheist and agnostic public intellectuals. The popular historian Tom Holland, for whom Christianity is the bedrock and shaping influence of Western cultures, is one example. Atheists and agnostics can debate theists and other religious believers in mutually respectful tones without resorting to the spiteful mockery and caricaturing at which the New Atheists excelled.
However, the audience of Unbelievable?, which Brierley used to host so urbanely, has recently witnessed a recrudescence of the irritable atheist in the form of biologist Richard Dawkins. Famous, or infamous depending on your point of view, for being one of the four leaders of New Atheism, Dawkins shot to best-selling prominence in 2006 with the publication of his anti-religion diatribe, The God Delusion, which declared that religious believers were incorrigibly mad and bad. It was a tour de force of theological ignorance in which Dawkins asked such jejune questions as who made God?
In an episode entitled ‘The Mystery of Existence: Why is there something rather than nothing?’, Dawkins joined a panel consisting of theologian Jessica Frazier and philosophers Silvia Jonas and Richard Swinburne to answer the question. The set-up did not look promising, as Dawkins is on record as declaring that theology is not a real subject and has asked if philosophers are good for anything. However, on this occasion Dawkins turned up, unlike the time he refused to debate the Christian philosopher William Lane Craig back in 2011, so progress has been made.
Turning the tide?
Dawkins even appeared on a special episode of Unbelievable? in May 2022 – a ‘Big Conversation’ discussing biology, belief and Covid-19 with the celebrated geneticist and Christian, Francis Collins. This was an amiable dialogue (click here to watch the whole show), perhaps because Collins is a fellow scientist who shared a mutual friendship with another New Atheist grandee, the late Christopher Hitchens.
At that point, it appeared Dawkins was growing more emollient in his octogenarian years. His latest appearance on Unbelievable? suggests otherwise.
Listening to Dawkins in this debate was like going back in a time machine to the hey-day of New Atheism, sometime in 2007 perhaps. Here was Dawkins in that same hectoring voice presenting an infuriated incredulity that some people dare to believe in God and think he is the cause of a Universe that appears to have come out of nothing. Here too was the ‘Dawkensian’ assumption of startling error that if you are a scientist, and specifically an evolutionary biologist, it is impossible to be a theist.
Can God be simple?
The discussion was supposedly about why there is something rather than nothing, but it coalesced into a debate as to how God can be called simple, a point asserted by the Christian on the panel, Richard Swinburne. This is an idea on which Dawkins opined disastrously in The God Delusion and he used the same argument against the simplicity of God in this debate.
According to Dawkins, if God is the author of the Universe and sustains and supervises every electron in it, he cannot be a simple substance. God, in Dawkins’ imagination, is like an organism or machine which has to be bigger than the Universe if he is to create and sustain its existence. Unfortunately for Dawkins, this is not how theologians and philosophers use the term simple with regards to God.
In response, the Christian theist on the panel, Richard Swinburne, declared that theism provides the most simple explanation for the Universe in the form of one causal substance, which is creator God. In addition, Swinburne referred to how God is simple in terms of his properties. This is an intriguing argument and worth spending some time looking at.
Theism asserts the hypothesis that God, who is the uncaused cause of all that there is, is a person who possesses infinite degrees of those properties which are essential to persons. Therefore, God has infinite power to do all that is logically possible, infinite knowledge of all that is logically possible to know and infinite freedom to do all that is logically possible, in that no cause external to God causes him to do anything.
To declare that God has infinite capacities means that he possesses zero limits, apart from logic. Positing infinite degrees of something is simpler than positing finite degrees of the same, because to posit a very large degree of something raises the question as to why that something is limited to that degree rather than to a greater or lesser degree.
One might object that the infinite hypothesis of God’s properties still raises the question of why God is infinite. That is true, but to say that God is infinite requires one explanation –that is, if humans can give one – rather than saying he is less than infinite and having to give a reason why he is that particular limit rather than all the other limits between no capacity and infinite capacity.
Let us consider another reason for calling God simple, which did not feature in the debate. Theists conceive of God as simple in that he is not divided into parts, although God demonstrates different attributes of himself at different times. An alternative word to God’s simplicity is his unity.
This means also that God’s attributes are neither true of only part of him nor true of him as something distinct from his true being. God’s whole being is, for instance, omniscient, omnipotent and so forth. What maintains this simplicity or unity is that God is described as unchanging. Something that is mutable is more complex than something that is invariable.
Dawkins was not prepared to countenance these ideas. If he were, he would understand that his mistake is to confuse the complexity of God’s actions (which are complex from our perspective but not from God’s) with the simplicity of his being. He would also understand that something that is simple can be the cause of a complexity of effects. Swinburne provided the example of a single electron, which is very simple and yet through its motions causes many effects.
Dawkins could conceivably state that he now knows this is how theology presents God and still question the hypothesis of God as the cause of what there is. Knowing how something or someone is defined does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that it or they exist, though those who support one of the different kinds of ontological argument would disagree. But Dawkins did not engage with divine simplicity and stuck staunchly to his view that God must be complex.
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It is true, of course, that there are Christians who also do not take the time to understand atheist arguments. One glaring example is how some Christian apologists think that all atheists are nihilists and materialists when in fact there are atheists who present arguments for moral objectivism and the existence of non-material substances.
The essence of true debate is to know accurately what the argument of one’s opponent really is. Understanding the argument is not synonymous with agreeing with it, it is charitable to do so and prevents fallacies such as ‘strawmanning’.
It is time to move on from Dawkins as a spokesman for atheism. On the point of divine simplicity, he has learned nothing from his debates and dialogues with Christians, not because he cannot, but because he will not. Theology and philosophy are hogwash to him and an unnecessary distraction to the real intellectual task which is science.
Now that we are in a time of more accordant debates between believers and unbelievers in which both sides take time to listen to each other, let us have more of them and leave the caustic, dogmatic relics of New Atheism behind.
Dr Peter Harris is a lay minister in the Church of England and a regular contributor to apologetics.com