By Sean Berens
In any argument, one hopes that those arguing are after the truth. If the opponents really do care about what is true, then they will delve into the heart of the issue. Unfortunately, many debates are reduced to contests of intelligence where proving the opposition wrong is a higher goal than ascertaining truth. This need to be right has certainly taken over the debate over God’s existence as pursued by Richard Dawkins and Terry Eagleton. Dawkins’ The God Delusion contains more hateful language directed towards religious fanatics than it does argument against God’s existence. Eagleton’s response to that book is preoccupied with depicting Dawkins as a close-minded idiot. Both men may be justified in their hatred for one another, but the enraged attacks only detract from their respective arguments. The reader, if able to escape the numerous provocations in the two texts to anger, is left with a core argument that is neglected and underdeveloped. Although, both arguments could be explored more deeply, Eagleton must be called the winner for the problems he raises within Dawkins’ arguments.
Dawkins’ simple argument seems to be that God’s existence is highly unlikely. For him, all signs point to the fact that the presence of anything outside and above the universe is entirely improbable. He also believes that the process of evolution and other processes like it can sufficiently explain reality as we experience it. Furthermore, he argues that the burden of proving God’s existence lies upon those who are religious, and that non-believers should not be required to disprove it. Although these ideas are the core of his argument, they receive less exploration throughout his chapters than they should.
Throughout his text, Dawkins goes out of his way to reproach the egregious actions of religious fanatics. He cites hate mail sent to Einstein after the famous thinker divulged his atheism. He goes on to criticize the proponents of radical Islam that created uproar over Danish cartoons. One could stomach this hate for the opposition if it was merely introductory but it permeates the entire book. While refuting arguments for God’s existence, he compares Saint Anselm to a nonsensical child and glorifies a “rout” of religious believers by Darwin (79). These annoying impertinences would have to be tolerated if Dawkins’ argument were particularly strong. However, the argument is not strong and it is he that comes off like a child, insecure and trying to show the reader that he is right simply because he is witty.
Eagleton is often guilty of the same act. His simple argument is that Dawkins is wrong and has not challenged the religious beliefs held by most people. Rather, he argues that Dawkins refutes the claims of fundamentalists, a view most believers would commend and accept. Eagleton also explains how the existence of God need not meet the requirements of scientific inquiry. These are good points. Sadly, Eagleton mentions them and then proceeds to attack Dawkins in the same way that Dawkins attacks fundamentalists. He casts Dawkins as a philistine and an intellectual lightweight. These charges, true or not, are largely irrelevant and Eagleton should resist the temptation to level them. Instead of reducing himself to the childish name-calling level that Dawkins stoops to at times, he should calmly and effectively refute the arguments presented. If he had done only this, then there would be little question that Eagleton is more convincing than Dawkins.
Nevertheless, when the considerable amount of ink and paper wasted with static name-calling is dug through, one must conclude that Eagleton has won. He proves Dawkins wrong and appears to be closer to the truth. He accomplishes this by debasing Dawkins’ presumptions about science and illuminating the extent to which The God Delusion uses a straw man to drive points against religion home. Eagleton’s strongest point is that Dawkins overestimates the ability of science to tackle the question of God’s existence. On God, Eagleton states that “His transcendence and invisibility are part of what he is, which is not the case with the Loch Ness monster”(3). Upon reflection, this statement is certainly true. The Loch Ness monster, if it exists, is a physical thing. It would follow that a scientist could hypothesize about this thing’s existence and, given the right amount of investigation, prove or disprove it. God is not like this. Dawkins loves to poke fun at the conception of God as a bearded man among the clouds but his conception of what an ultimate being could be does not move far beyond this. Dawkins fails to see that it would be impossible for science to understand a truly transcendent being. Science is based upon the rules that govern our current reality. Things like gravity and magnetism are key to understanding phenomenas explained by science. For science, any transcendent being would have to be explained as it relates to these forces. The rules of scientific inquiry would preclude the conclusion that an ultimate being is apart from the forces through which that very inquiry is carried out. Scientists could keep trying to explain this being as it relates to the physical world forever without success. Thus, God could be placed before the face of science, and science (as it is today) would be forever blind to God’s presence.
This point about the inability of science to understand transcendence is perhaps illustrated more clearly during Dawkins’ discussion of miracles. He presents the case of a magic show in which illusionists fire guns at each other and catch the respective bullets in their teeth. Dawkins explains that the religious believer, if he or she wishes to remain consistent, concludes that, “it must be a miracle. There is no scientific explanation. Its got to be supernatural” (129). Conversely, he explains his own reaction as follows: “There is a perfectly good explanation. It is just that I am too naïve, or too unobservant, or too unimaginative, to think of it” (129). Dawkins’ reaction encapsulates the approach of science to any problem. The true scientist believes that there is always a “good explanation” that falls within the laws pertaining to the investigation. But, suppose, for the sake of argument, that the feat at the magic show truly had been a miracle. Suppose the performers were able to control reality and truly catch speeding bullets between their teeth. The scientist would never reach this conclusion. The answer to the problem would defy the basic laws that govern scientific inquiry. The search for a “perfectly good explanation” would press on forever, unable to accept the fact that a truly unexplainable event had occurred.
Clearly, science could never comprehend or explain God or miracles, but Dawkins rightly points out that the burden of proof for a God conclusion must rest upon those in favor of God’s existence. This seems to be a fair requirement, but the next rhetorical step is to refute the most convincing cases for God’s existence. Eagleton points this out when he asks; “does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case? Dawkins, it appears, has sometimes been told by theologians that he sets up straw men only to bowl them over…they are absolutely right.” (2). Instead of meeting the “toughest case,” Dawkins spends most of his central chapter, “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God,” refuting the arguments of creationists. The majority of believers agree with Dawkins in that arguments for creationism are absurd. This majority sees the plausibility of natural selection as a means for developing life. The true refutation of God’s existence would argue against the theological systems that can accommodate a theory like evolution that seems so logically accurate. If Dawkins were to effectively refute these systems, then he would be meeting the “toughest case” and his work would be of great merit. For Dawkins, the problem with meeting this “toughest case” is that it is too difficult. Many people believe in a God that requires no physical evidence and Dawkins sees this God as impossible to argue against because there is no scientific means for doing so. Instead, he refutes the existence of the God of Christian fundamentalists. He does this fairly effectively, but it is still of no use to those religious believers that never believed in fundamentalism in the first place.
Dawkins needs to be right so badly that he manipulates the argument so as to make himself the undisputed winner. He soundly drubs a straw man of religious belief but hides from actual religion as many people see it. He is unable to admit any uncertainty on the topic of religion and this is his downfall. Conversely, Eagleton embraces uncertainty and freely admits that any one of several explanations of existence may be true. Thus, it is Eagleton’s response that is more faithful to the actual argument over God’s existence. Unlike Dawkins, he ultimately strives for the truth, even at the expense of being judged “right” over his opponent. Perhaps it is then more than coincidence that in his attempt to find “truth” Eagleton has also proved himself to be “right.”
Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006.
Eagleton, Terry. “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching.” London Review of Books, 19 October 2006. 21 September 2007 .