Why I Don’t Read Ideological Media: Dawkins Edition

Eric Reitan breaks good ol’ Dick down:

How are books born? The one you’re reading now was born when a colleague gave me a photocopied page from a book, without identifying information, and asked me to evaluate it as I would a student’s paper. The page offered “summaries” of the first three of St Thomas Aquinas’ five arguments for God’s existence (popularly called the “Five Ways”). The writer of the passage got the arguments wrong – and then objected to them at precisely those points where he got them wrong.

The writer was Richard Dawkins. The book was The God Delusion. The photocopied passage, had Dawkins turned it in to me for a grade, would have earned him a whopping “D.” And for many people, this D-level work may be their only exposure to Aquinas’ arguments for God’s existence.

And so I bought Dawkins’ book. And as I read it, I was taken in by the author’s swagger. Dawkins is clearly confident, writing as if he knows what he’s talking about. The only problem is that, as often as not, he has no idea what he’s talking about.

Eric Reitan. Is God A Delusion: A Reply to Religion’s Cultured Despisers (Kindle Locations 1430-1435). Kindle Edition.

UPDATE: Upon reflection, I thought this too cavalier an attack so I decided to provide an example. St. Thomas Aquinas Third Way of proving God’s existence.

The third way is taken from possibility and necessity, and runs thus. We find in nature things that are possible to be and not to be, since they are found to be generated, and to corrupt, and consequently, they are possible to be and not to be. But it is impossible for these always to exist, for that which is possible not to be at some time is not. Therefore, if everything is possible not to be, then at one time there could have been nothing in existence. Now if this were true, even now there would be nothing in existence, because that which does not exist only begins to exist by something already existing. Therefore, if at one time nothing was in existence, it would have been impossible for anything to have begun to exist; and thus even now nothing would be in existence—which is absurd. Therefore, not all beings are merely possible, but there must exist something the existence of which is necessary. But every necessary thing either has its necessity caused by another, or not. Now it is impossible to go on to infinity in necessary things which have their necessity caused by another, as has been already proved in regard to efficient causes. Therefore we cannot but postulate the existence of some being having of itself its own necessity, and not receiving it from another, but rather causing in others their necessity. This all men speak of as God.

Aquinas, Saint Thomas (2012-03-28). The Summa Theologica – Complete Edition (Illustrated Classics) (Kindle Locations 1007-1016). Catholic Way Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Reitan explains the Third Way and how Dawkins screws it up.

By a somewhat different argument, Aquinas seeks to show that there needs to be a necessary being (one that could not have failed to exist) in order to explain all of the contingent beings in the world (things that could have failed to exist). Dawkins offers the following gloss on this Third Way: “There must have been a time when no physical things existed. But, since physical things exist now, there must have been something non-physical to bring them into existence, and that something we call God” (p. 77).

This is just wrong. First, it confuses the distinction between contingent and necessary beings with the distinction between physical and non-physical things. More significantly, it leaves out crucial details of Aquinas’ argument. In this argument, Aquinas asks us to imagine an infinite past. If the past is infinite, then why couldn’t every contingent thing be explained by a preceding one, stretching back forever?

Aquinas’ answer seems to be this: everything that is possible will eventually happen given infinite time. If everything that exists could, possibly, not have existed, then it is possible for there to be a time when nothing exists. Given an infinite past, that possibility would be actual at some point. But since nothing can come from nothing, it follows that nothing would exist now. So, if we tried to explain the existence of contingent things in terms of antecedent contingent things, eventually we’d hit a point in the past where nothing existed – even if we posit an infinite past.

And so, to explain why anything exists, we need a necessary being.

Eric Reitan. Is God A Delusion: A Reply to Religion’s Cultured Despisers (Kindle Locations 1460-1468). Kindle Edition.

And Reitan’s judgment of Dawkins’ “analysis” is exactly what is wrong with ideological writing.

No important objections, successful or not, come from Dawkins. Instead, he offers a cavalier attack on a caricature, in which swagger replaces careful thinking.

So how are books born? There are many answers – but this book was born because I felt the need to counteract a wave of popular attacks on religion in which careless thinking and intellectual laziness are masked behind bluster and bravado. Dawkins’ mangling of Aquinas is a perfect example of this wretched trend.

Eric Reitan. Is God A Delusion: A Reply to Religion’s Cultured Despisers (Kindle Locations 1496-1498). Kindle Edition.

And Richard Dawkins is a scientist who self identifies as one committed to reason, knowledge and truth.

Leave a comment

Leave a Comment Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.