Right + Wrong
Morality and ethics
Richard Dawkins and The Man Delusion
- Peter May served on the General Synod of the Church of England from 1985 to 2010 and was Chair of the UCCF Trust Board from 2003 to 2010. He is a retired GP. View all resources by Peter May
This month England has been taken by storm. Not rain – but riots. Unlike the weather, it came without warning and has left the nation stunned. Widespread robbery, violence, arson and murder flooded onto the streets, initially in London but later in scattered outbreaks in cities across the country.
It started within a mile of my son's home. No surprise there, you might think. I phoned him to check he was OK. All very laid back and jovial, "Yes, I have just been out and thrown a couple of bricks through a window, but we're fine!" This sort of comment passes for humour in our household but two hours later it all looked much less funny.
With helicopters overhead and the constant sirens of emergency services, a sense of panic was in the air as the riots reached the end of his road. With his wife expecting to go into labour at any moment, the realization dawned that the maternity hospital was one mile the other side of the riots and there was no possibility of getting through.
The pictures being shown on television were quite shocking. Terrifying fires, where a large block of buildings blazed with flames reaching high into the night sky, and not a single fire appliance or policeman to be seen. The emergency services were totally overwhelmed as the ravages of naked evil were let loose upon the streets. In one area, the next morning revealed a street of wrecked and looted shops, with just one outlet remaining dramatically untouched, as though no-one was interested in it. It was a book shop!
And so the head scratching and soul searching began. How did this happen? Don't these young people know right from wrong? What has happened to their sense of moral values? Is this due to their parenting or education? – and so on. The contributions from writers and commentators showed their lack of understanding as they tried to grasp the significance of these dreadful problems.
In his book The Blank Slate, Stephen Pinker wrote:
When law enforcement vanishes, all manner of violence breaks out: looting, settling old scores, ethnic cleansing, and petty wars among gangs, warlords, and mafias. This was obvious in the remnants of Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, and parts of Africa in the 1990s, but can also happen in countries with a long tradition of civility. As a young teenager … I laughed off my parents’ argument that if the government ever laid down its arms all hell would break loose. Our competing predictions were put to the test at 8am on October 17, 1969, when the Montreal police went on strike.
One of the great strengths of the Christian case is that it is entirely and profoundly consistent with what we observe about the universe, including human nature.
Pinker goes on to tell the story. By 11.20am the first bank was robbed. By midday most stores had closed because of looting. Airport taxi drivers burned down a rival garage. A rooftop sniper shot and killed a provincial policeman. Rioters broke into hotels. A doctor killed a burglar he caught in his home. In that one day in Montreal, six banks were robbed, a hundred shops were looted, twelve fires were ignited and three million dollars worth of property damage was done. The city authorities had to call in the army to restore order.
Pinker commented, "This decisive empirical test left my politics in tatters (and offered a foretaste of life as a scientist). The generalization that anarchy in the sense of a lack of government leads to anarchy in the sense of violent chaos may seem banal, but it is often over-looked in today's still romantic climate."
So where do we turn to for down-to-earth wisdom?
Well, I suspect not Richard Dawkins! Consider his chapter, 'The Roots of Morality: why are we good?' in The God Delusion.
It seems to me to require quite a low self-regard to think that, should belief in God suddenly vanish from the world, we would all become callous and selfish hedonists, with no kindness, no charity, no generosity, nothing that would deserve the name of goodness.
In contrast, he quotes the famous opinion of Dostoevsky, expressed in the mouth of Ivan Karamazov, that there was no law that compelled man to love humanity but if love existed it did so "entirely because man believed in his own immortality". Destroy that and his capacity for love would be exhausted. "And furthermore, nothing would be immoral then, everything would be permitted. And finally ... egoism, even extending to the perpetration of crime, would not only be permissible but would be recognized as the essential, the most rational, and even the noblest raisin d'ętre of the human condition."
Now why on earth should that be true? Surely Dawkins put his finger on the problem when he so elegantly stated his own atheistic view of the world in this parallel quote to his statement above: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”
Yet this same Dawkins now goes on to say, "Perhaps naively, I have inclined towards a less cynical view of human nature than Ivan Karamazov. Do we really need policing – whether by God or by each other – in order to stop us from behaving in a selfish and criminal manner? I dearly want to believe that I do not need such surveillance – and nor, dear reader, do you... Perhaps I, too, am a Pollyanna to believe that people would remain good when unobserved and unpoliced by God."
Now my Oxford Dictionary defines a Pollyanna as “a person who is unduly optimistic or achieves spurious happiness through self-delusion”. So whatever we make of The God Delusion, this is Dawkins’ self-confessed Man Delusion. And the irony is compounded because Dawkins is the man of science who tells us not to believe in anything without evidence. One of the great strengths of the Christian case is that it is entirely and profoundly consistent with what we observe about the universe, including human nature. It is not romantically optimistic, with fanciful notions that fly against all the empirical evidence.
Neither does Christianity have delusions about intelligence. Listen to Dawkins again: "Another good possibility is that atheism is correlated with some third factor, such as higher education, intelligence or reflectiveness, which might counteract criminal impulses."
How does this work out when tested in the laboratory of life? Let us take a couple of well-educated and intelligent groups of largely secular people, say, politicians and journalists. Are they prone to the same sins of greed, lust and deceit that less educated people suffer from? Are they more faithful in their marriages and more honest in declaring their taxes? Does integrity increase with intelligence?
Not at all! We find ourselves in a nation outraged by the moral failures of our political classes, some of whom are currently in jail for cheating on their expenses claims, while our journalists are being hauled over the coals for secretly phone hacking into people's grief and privacy in order to make money.
Educate a devil and you do not make him a saint. You merely make him a cleverer devil – and the evidence for this is everywhere. Just think of those African tyrants, who were so brilliantly educated in Europe.
Do reflective people do any better? Not if the Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik is anything to go by. He has reflected endlessly on the state of Norwegian society and concluded that the only remedy must be the most appalling mass murder. And he is hardly the first 'bright' spark to come up with that conclusion!
As we look forward in the UK to the speaking and debating tour of William Lane Craig this October, we have every reason to believe that the moral argument for God will strike people more forcefully now than in a very long while.
As Craig concedes in his excellent new book, On Guard - Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision:
In my experience, the moral argument is the most effective of all the arguments for the existence of God. I say this grudgingly because my favourite is the cosmological argument. But cosmological and teleological arguments don’t touch people where they live. The moral argument cannot be so easily brushed aside. For every day you get up, you answer the question of whether there are objective moral values and duties by how you live. It’s unavoidable.
 Stephen Pinker, The Blank Slate, The Penguin Press 2002, p.331.
 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Bantam Press 2006, p.227.
 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 1994: bk.2, ch.6, p.87.
 Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden, Basic Books 1996, p.133.
 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Bantam Press 2006, p.228.
 Ibid, p.229.
 William Lane Craig, On Guard, David C Cook 2010, p.144.
This article is reproduced on bethinking.org by the kind permission of its author and the editor of the European Leadership Forum Newsletter.