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Why Richard Dawkins Was Simply Wrong in His “Reason Rally” Speech


On June 4, a few thousand atheists gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., for an event they dubbed the “Reason Rally.” Due to health reasons, Richard Dawkins could not be there in person to address the audience, but he did send a video message, the transcript of which has been passed around via atheist blogs.

In it, Dawkins highlights how atheists are mistreated in the U.S., especially when religious people ask them the incredibly insensitive question “What church do you go to?“ According to Dawkins:

"The question is presumptuous to the point of rudeness, yet informant after informant tells me how often it’s thrown at newcomers to certain neighborhoods in America, as casually and automatically as a comment on the weather. That the newcomer might not attend a place of worship at all simply doesn’t cross the friendly neighborhood mind."

Yikes! Better not ask people where they go to school, work, or celebrate the holidays on the off chance you’re speaking with a dropout, an unemployed person, or a Jehovah’s Witness. Or, maybe atheists and everyone else can save their indignation for something that is truly offensive (like signs from the last Reason Rally that compare religion to male genitalia).

Do you believe in Magick?

Dawkins also mocked any exercise in critical thinking that leads to the conclusion that God has a real causal effect on the physical universe:

"'God did it' can never be an explanation for anything. It is sheer intellectual cowardice. If you’ll stoop to magicking into existence an unexplained peacock designer, you might as well magick an unexplained peacock and cut out the middleman."

But notice the irony in what Dawkins says just a few seconds later:

"It’s like when you see a really brilliant conjuring trick. You have to smack yourself and say, 'No!' However largely my senses and my instincts are screaming 'miracle,' it really isn’t. There is a rational explanation [emphasis added]. In the case of the conjuring trick, we know it’s not a miracle. And honest conjurers like Jamy Ian Swiss, James Randi, and Penn & Teller tell us so."

That, my friends, is called the principle of causality or the principle of sufficient reason. Just as we wouldn’t accept the magician’s answer to be, “The rabbit just appeared in the hat without a cause,” we shouldn’t accept the answer that any object, be it a unicycle or an entire universe, simply “popped” into existence without a cause. Some explanations must be ultimate or final, because if they weren’t you would have an infinite number of explanations that don’t explain anything at all.

The atheistic philosopher Gregory Dawes critiques Dawkins’s demand for such an explanation in this way:

"[Dawkins’s idea is] that religious explanations are unacceptable because they leave unexplained the existence of their explanans (God). Dawkins apparently assumes that every successful explanation should also explain its own explanans. But this is an unreasonable demand. Many of our most successful explanations raise new puzzles and present us with new questions to be answered." (Theism and Explanation 16)

Moreover, God is not more complex than the universe he explains. Theologians since Aquinas have argued that because God has no moving parts and does not fragment his thoughts like we do, he is absolutely simple. Atheist Erik Wielenberg says that Dawkins has given us no reason to think that a designer must be as physically complex as the thing he creates and thus himself need a designer. The universe’s designer could just be an immaterial mind that cannot fail to exist. Wielenberg writes:

"The central weakness of Dawkins’s Gambit, then, is that it is aimed primarily at proving the nonexistence of a being that is unlike the God of traditional monotheism in some important ways. . . . In light of this, I must side with those critics of The God Delusion who have judged Dawkins’s Gambit to be a failure." (“Dawkins’s Gambit, Hume’s Aroma, and God’s Simplicity”)

A Simple Retort

Dawkins does seem to be aware of the critique of his arguments that he doesn’t understand God’s simplicity and so his atheistic argument from design doesn’t succeed. In his video for the Reason Rally, Dawkins said this:

"Some of our best theologians pathetically tried to argue that, far from being complex, God is simple. . . . The effrontery of it is beyond astounding. This supposedly simple God had to know how to set the nuclear force 1039 times stronger than gravity. He had to calculate with similar exactitude the requisite values of half a dozen critical numbers—the fundamental constants of physics. . . . God may be almighty, all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, but the one thing he cannot be, if he’s even minimally to meet his job description, is 'all-simple.' The statistical argument against the divine designer remains intact and inescapably devastating."

The problem with Dawkins reply is that he still doesn’t understand divine simplicity, which, in spite of its name, is not an easy concept to understand. Essentially, divine simplicity means that God is one, or he is the perfect and infinite act of being. Not even God’s attributes are divided; so, for example, God’s power is identical to his goodness, which is identical to his knowledge, which is identical to his existence, which is identical to all his other attributes.

St. Anselm of Canterbury said, “[T]here are no parts in you, Lord: neither are you many, but you are so much one and the same with yourself that in nothing are you dissimilar with yourself.” God is just ipsum esse, the act of being, or the great I AM. God knows all things because he sustains them in existence, not because he is a giant cosmic person who inexplicably knows more than we do.

Humans speak of God as if he had different parts because our own minds are limited. We have to do this in order to sensibly talk about God, just as scientists use figurative language to explain imperceptible realties like electrons or black holes. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Our language is using human modes of expression; nevertheless it really does attain to God himself, though unable to express him in his infinite simplicity” (CCC 43).

Finally, using simpler entities to explain more complex ones is common in science. For example, Maxwell’s equations (which describe electromagnetism) could fit on an index card, whereas a description of their effects would fill a chapter of a textbook. An explanation does not always have to explain everything, and a designer can be simpler than the thing he designs.

Since God is the simplest being imaginable, or infinite undivided being, it’s not necessary to ask who designed God. Any explanation for the universe must have a stopping point, and it’s more rational for that point to be unlimited being that exists by necessity, and therefore has an explanation, and not just an unexplained universe or Big Bang singularity.

(If you’d like to learn more about responding to Dawkins and other atheist arguments, I encourage you to check out my book Answering Atheism.)

Trent Horn

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Trent Horn holds a Master’s degree in Theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville and is currently an apologist and speaker for Catholic Answers. He specializes in training pro-lifers to intelligently and compassionately engage pro-choice advocates in genuine dialogue. He recently released his first book, titled Answering Atheism: How to Make the Case for God with Logic and Charity. Follow Trent at his blog, TrentHorn.com.

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