Dawkins' Delusions

An interview with Fr. Thomas Crean, O.P., author of God Is No Delusion: A Refutation of Richard Dawkins

In God Is No Delusion, Father Thomas Crean, O.P. takes on the claims of biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion. He examines Dawkins' "argument from complexity," his attacks on miracles and the Gospels, his inconsistent understanding of morality, and his notions of the origins of religion. "Fr. Crean is an excellent tutor" whose book exhibits "splendid lucidity," observes Dr. Thomas Howard. And Dr. Joseph Shaw, who teaches philosophy at Oxford University, praises Father Crean's book for being "calm and reflective, patient and charitable."

Carl E. Olson, editor of Ignatius Insight, recently interviewed Father Crean about his book, Dawkins, and atheism at large.

Ignatius Insight: Why did you decide to write a book-length response to Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion?

Fr. Crean: Normally I think it is better to leave extreme anti-Catholic or anti-theistic tracts unanswered, both to avoid giving them greater publicity and because they tend to undermine themselves more effectively than any Catholic apologist could undermine them, by their crassness or self-contradictions. Richard Dawkins's work, however, seemed to call for some reply. It was already very well-publicized, so it seemed unlikely that I should win it a wider circulation, and its author is a fairly well-known public figure.

He has, for example, a professorship at Oxford University dedicated to promoting "the public understanding of science", and he has also presented a television series attacking religion. In particular I was prompted to write a reply by seeing his book displayed in the most prominent place in the shop window of the main bookshop in Cambridge, near where I live. Whenever I passed this book-shop, I saw this challenge to our faith, and I was put in mind of the Philistine Goliath taunting the armies of Israel to come and do combat...

Ignatius Insight: Dawkins' field of expertise is biology. How would you rate him as, first, a philosopher, and, secondly, as an apologist for atheism?

Fr. Crean: I do not think he is very interested in philosophy. He refers occasionally to Daniel Dennett, but that is about all. He seems to take materialism as self-evident, but he doesn't make any serious effort to explain thought or free will. He refers at one point to St. Thomas's "five ways", but his discussion of them is extremely cursory, with major misunderstandings. There is no mention of Plato or Aristotle in his book. His impatience with "religion"is such that he is not really disposed to weigh carefully any arguments in its favor, which is obviously the very reverse of a philosophical frame of mind.

As an apologist for atheism he has some useful qualities, such as passion, a tone of conviction, a desire to make converts, ready invective and an apparent concern for the psychological (I almost said "spiritual") welfare of those whom he is trying to convert. On the other hand his stridency must surely reduce his influence with some people, and his lapses of logic with others.

Ignatius Insight: Throughout God Is No Delusion you point out numerous errors of logic and fact in Dawkins' work. In your opinion, what are some of the most egregious of those errors? Based on his book, what sort of research did Dawkins put into studying Christian history, theology, and philosophy?

Fr. Crean: I think one of his worst faults is the tendency to reason in a circle. For example, to explain why religion is so widespread even though in his opinion it is irrational, he says that it is evolutionarily useful. Why? Because it helps survival if, in general, one tends to adhere to the philosophy if life that one has once adopted. But the question at issue is precisely why so many people adopt theism as their philosophy of life, rather than atheism. So his explanation amounts to saying that theism is so widespread because so many people adopt it.

I suspect that he did very little research into Christian sources before writing his book. He quotes occasionally from the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia, which is of course available on the Internet. Sometimes his misunderstandings of it are quite funny, as when he quotes a passage in the entry on "Purgatory" called "proofs of Purgatory", where the author has referred to the immemorial Christian custom of praying for the dead. Professor Dawkins seriously supposes that the author intended this as a 'proof' that would convince an atheist such as himself!

What is perhaps more surprising is that he has not done more research using anti-Christian sources. I should have expected that there would have been more about the Crusades, for example, or the Inquisition. But in fact he doesn't seem to be very interested in history, any more than in philosophy.

Ignatius Insight: What is the best argument or point made by Dawkins?

Fr. Crean: An interesting question. I think that the most promising moment in his book is in his chapter on the origin of morality. He tries to explain morality—which he generally reduces to "altruism"—by the usual arguments from evolutionary psychology, i.e. certain apparently self-denying actions ultimately favor the replication of the genes of those who perform them. But at one point he becomes dissatisfied with himself and writes that wherever such tendencies may come from, there still needs to be some objective standard to distinguish good and evil: for he also believes that evolution has planted some unpleasant tendencies in human being, e.g., a tendency to xenophobia. He seems to think that we have a duty to follow some of our tendencies and not others.

So he is on the brink of admitting a transcendent source for morality; for a duty implies a lawgiver outside ourselves. Unfortunately, the next moment he goes off at a tangent and starts talking about the debate between utilitarians and their opponents, and the question of where duty—as opposed to "good tendencies"—comes from is not confronted.

Ignatius Insight: Why do you think books such as The God Delusion have been so popular? Is atheism actually growing? Or does it create news and garner attention because authors such as Dawkins use polemical language and thrive on creating controversy?

Fr. Crean: I think there is an inextricable relation between atheism, or more generally, dislike for religion, and moral decline. The collapse of public standards of morality makes people more prone to rejecting religion, and this in turn leads to further attacks on morality. Works such as Dawkins' no doubt do something to speed up this process, but a much greater responsibility would seem to lie with law-makers and their failure to defend the Christian heritage of society. Individual works of polemic (on either side) are ephemeral, but laws are lasting.

Ignatius Insight: Have you read any of the other recent books by the so-called "new atheists": Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris?

Fr. Crean: I have not read any of their works, though I was briefly interviewed by the BBC World Service, along with Christopher Hitchens. He did not want to talk to me because I was a priest, so it was not easy to have a discussion with him.

Ignatius Insight: In terms of approach, style, and content, how are the "new atheists" different from the popular atheists of the early 20th-century, such as H.G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, and George Bernard Shaw?

Fr. Crean: Bernard Shaw I think would not have considered himself an atheist, though he did mock Christianity in some of his works. The most obvious difference between someone such as Russell and what one may read today is simply the higher level of virulence and invective which atheism has reached, together with the complete abandonment of Christian morality. The writers of a hundred years ago may have been no less hostile than modern writers, but since society at large was so much more Christian, they had to restrain themselves.There is almost no restraint in Professor Dawkins' writing. The God Delusion would undoubtedly have been banned as blasphemous a hundred years ago, and the author's views on sexual morality would have excluded him from ordinary society.

Possibly another difference is that the atheist writers of the past often promoted some form of "utopianism", Socialist or other. They believed that if Christianity could be expunged, the human race could enter a new era of peace and happiness. Wells at least promoted such ideas at first, until the experience of two world wars led him to write Mind at the end of its tether. I don't have the impression that utopianism is very fashionable among modern writers.

Ignatius Insight: In addition to your book, what are some basic resources for Catholics who want to be able to respond to popular arguments made by atheists and skeptics?

Fr. Crean:There are so many sources, it is hard to know how to answer. As Dr Johnson said, one can turn over a whole library to write a single book, or to respond to a single book. Among the classic works are St. Augustine's City of God, St. Thomas Aquinas's Summa contra Gentiles, St. Robert Bellarmine's Controversies, or Pascal's Pensees. Among modern works of apologetics, one that I esteem highly is called Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine. It was written in the 1930s by Archbishop Michael Sheehan, then updated about ten years ago by Fr. Peter Joseph, an Australian priest. The updated version was printed by the Saint Austin's Press, a small English publishing house, but unfortunately it has gone out of print, and there are no plans that I know of to print any more. (Perhaps Ignatius Press might consider buying the rights to it?) As for the Internet, the Catholic Answers website is a useful resource.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Excerpts:

Professor Dawkins and the Origins of Religion | Fr. Thomas Crean, O.P. | From God Is No Delusion: A Refutation of Richard Dawkins
Are Truth, Faith, and Tolerance Compatible? | Joseph Ratzinger
Atheism and the Purely "Human" Ethic | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Is Religion Evil? Secularism's Pride and Irrational Prejudice | Carl E. Olson
A Short Introduction to Atheism | Carl E. Olson
C.S. Lewis’s Case for Christianity | An Interview with Richard Purtill
Paganism and the Conversion of C.S. Lewis | Clotilde Morhan
Designed Beauty and Evolutionary Theory | Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M.
The Universe is Meaning-full | An interview with Dr. Benjamin Wiker
The Mythological Conflict Between Christianity and Science | An interview with Dr. Stephen Barr
The Source of Certitude | Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M.
Deadly Architects | An Interview with Donald De Marco & Benjamin Wiker
The Mystery of Human Origins | Mark Brumley
Relativism 101: A Brief, Objective Guide | Carl E. Olson