An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 4 (part 2)

In the latter half of this chapter, Edwards tries to argue that life is so improbable that it had to be a miracle, and challenges Dawkins' ideas about religion as child abuse. Read part one here.



The improbability of life

Edwards now moves on to Dawkins' use of biology. He doesn't go after evolution specifically (though the term "Darwinian evolutionary biology" is cringe-worthy). Instead, he tackles the origin of life. It's a classic god-of-the-gaps argument: you can't explain how life started, ergo GodDidIt.

How does Dawkins account for the origin of life? Dawkins’ explanation is an “initial stroke of luck”! 19 (I’m not kidding, those are his actual words.) But that’s not all. In addition to the origin of life, Dawkins acknowledges there are a number of other unique, “one off” events in the history of life. He mentions the origin of the eukaryotic cell (a complex cell with a membrane-bound nucleus), consciousness, plus other unspecified events. In each case, Dawkins admits the need for a “stroke of luck,” “sheer luck,” “some luck,” and “major infusions of luck.” To be fair, Dawkins couches each of these lucky scenarios in the context of the “anthropic principle,” which I will deal with shortly. The point here is that appeal to luck is an incredible admission from one of today’s most vocal atheists and defender of rationality. Here Dawkins is reduced to basing his theory on “major infusions of luck” and “momentous, difficult and statistically improbable” steps! This is an unabashed appeal to chance. It is a scientific “explanation” that lacks any semblance of explanation.
One of the key implications of evolution by natural selection is that it does away with teleology – the idea that life was designed with some purpose in mind. Giraffes didn't evolve long necks so they could eat trees; their long necks gave them access to food sources not available to other animals, giving them a selective advantage. It's an important distinction.

This always, in retrospect, appears to be a grand stroke of luck. And it is – for the giraffe. But evolution would always produce something. Some order, some arrangement of natural life, some type of complexity. A simple analogy is that it's highly improbably that you exist; your father produces billions of sperm, your mother hundreds of eggs. They not only had to meet through any number of fortuitous circumstances, but also had to copulate exactly when they did, and that one sperm had to be the one that fertilized the egg or you would not exist. So why isn't it remarkable that you exist? Because someone would exist. If your parents had copulated later, or if a different sperm had fertilized the egg, there would still be a baby. It just wouldn't be you. You are extraordinarily improbable, a product of extraordinary chance; reproduction is not.

Edwards continues,
Dawkins assumes that nature is all there is, he knows therefore life must have come from natural causes. How does he know life came from natural causes? Because he assumes nature is all there is!
The central argument in TGD is that there is no rational basis to infer design from the existence of life. Not that design can somehow be disproved; as I said in my response to the first chapter, you can always define the "designer" so as to say, of course he would design it that way.
 But apart from Dawkins’ naturalistic dogmatism, the question is how non-living matter could conceivably have morphed into the first living, reproducing cell. Dawkins answers that question by appealing to a lucky break and “by postulating a very large number of planetary opportunities.” 22 What he means is that if there are enough planets in the universe, eventually some of them are bound to produce life.
This just an argument from ignorance over abiogenesis. We don't know how the first life arose. That doesn't mean that's a gap where you can place God. Dawkins talks about this in the section of chapter four of the book called "The Worship of Gaps" (more on that momentarily).

Dawkins is also pointing out that, in a universe with as many as 100 sextillion stars, that one could have the right conditions for supporting life is highly probable. It's always improbable, in retrospect, that the probability of specific life happened as it did, but that's when the above birth analogy comes into play.

Edwards turns his attention to the anthropic principle:
Imagine standing before a firing squad of fifty expert marksmen and after hearing their rifles fire in unison, you realize that you are still alive; they all missed! Would your first thought be, “Well, of course they all missed; I’m still here!” No, you would naturally wonder why they all missed, and common sense would lead you to conclude that there must be a reason for what just took place. 28 This scenario illustrates how Dawkins misunderstands the point of the anthropic principle by overlooking the obvious question, “Why are things arranged this way?”
The anthropic principle simply says that in retrospect, a priori probability always seems absurdly infinitesimal – and yet x happened. It's infinitesimally improbable that you specifically were born, and yet you were. It is not so improbable that someone would be born. Design arguments are like looking at your existence and concluding that the entire reproductive process was put in place to produce you, specifically, simply because you are so a priori improbable. The anthropic principle says that of course the conditions were just right to produce you (because you exist!), but that doesn't mean the reproductive process is there to produce you.


Abiogenesis

Edwards moves on to a worship of the gaps with regard to the origin of life. It's pretty awful:
The problem that Dawkins faces is there is no natural process known to man that can produce something living from something non-living. Atheists are fond of accusing Christians of “God of the Gaps” argumentation, where God is simply inserted to fill in our lack of knowledge. But it is clear that the issue here is not our lack of knowledge; to the contrary, it is what we do know from chemistry and biology that leads us to the conclusion that getting something living from something non-living is impossible.
Except that you are composed, entirely, out of non-living matter. Quarks are not alive. Protons and electrons and even neurons and synapses are not alive. They cannot think or feel. And yet, in a particular arrangement, they produce life. They produce consciousness. Why is this so mystifying? The very atoms comprising our bodies were born in the crucibles of ancient stars that exploded in supernovae, spreading their enriched guts across the galaxy. We're made of the same elements that are found in abundance on our planet. None of it is "alive". You are made of "dead" stuff.

Edwards finishes with the old other ways of knowing canard:
The reason Dawkins continues to maintain his position on the question of life’s origin is because he has locked himself into a naturalistic universe. This decision comes from his worldview. Dawkins’ theology excludes any supernatural God and his philosophy assumes nature is the totality of reality and the scientific method the only way of gaining knowledge.
This was all discussed in previous posts on this book, and in my post The importance of evidence.


Religion as a form of child abuse

Edwards finishes with a section originally written by Tom Gilson, who wrote a few chapters of this book (including the first, already reviewed) and serves as its editor. But since Edwards is presenting it in his chapter ("slightly edited" it says in the footnotes), I'll treat it as his argument. 
Throughout Chapter 9 of The God Delusion, Dawkins turns his attention to religious training. He maintains that teaching religion to children is child abuse. This is not just an arresting figure of speech or an exaggeration to make a point; Dawkins soberly compares religious upbringing to sexual abuse, and finds religion the worse of the two.
It's not a good start when you begin a section of a critique with an assertion that is patently false. Like William Lane Craig, Edwards seems to be counting on his readers being Christians who haven't actually read The God Delusion. Well, I have. I own a copy. I can reference it if needed. And Richard Dawkins doesn't say anything like that, which probably why Edwards neglected to provide any actual, y'know sources. I mean really. Can we get a quote? A page number?

But it's kind of besides the point, because, well, Edwards (and Gilson, by extension) completely misses Dawkins' point with this argument:
If religious training is thought to be child abuse, an obvious hypothesis follows: Children with religious upbringings should show some of the symptoms that are typical of abused children. These symptoms are well known. They include fear, panic attacks, eating disorders, depression, low self-confidence, irritability, difficulty relating with others, substance abuse, and so on. Not every abuse victim experiences most or all of these, but outcomes like these are typical. If a religious upbringing equals abuse, there ought to be signs that something like this happens to children of religious families.
Dawkins does not argue in TGD that religion is child abuse in anything like the same sense as physical abuse. That would be hyperbolic to the extreme. Instead, he argues that the suppression of critical thinking, the use of coercion and fear (like threats of hellfire), and the subversion of science education in the name of religion all constitute a different kind of abuse. "Abuse" is admittedly a weighty word, but I struggle to think of a more apt term. Dawkins objects to childhood religious indoctrination such that a child is labeled a "Muslim child" or a "Christian child" – clearly, the child lacks the ability to understand the implications of their religious upbringing. Dawkins says,
If, having been fairly and properly exposed to all the scientific evidence, [children] grow up and decide that the Bible is literally true or that the movements of the planets rule their lives, that is their privilege. The important point is that it's their privilege to decide what they shall think, and not their parents' privilege to impose it by force majeure. And this, of course, is especially important when we reflect that children become the parents of the next generation, in a position to pass on whatever indoctrination may have moulded them. [p.367]
This is clearly a very different argument than what Edwards is attributing to Dawkins. Then again, judging by the absence of references, it's highly likely that, like William Lane Craig and Alister McGrath, Edwards didn't actually bother to read this the book for himself.

Edwards goes on to reference a study that supposedly shows that children raised in religious homes turn out better in just about every respect than kids raised in non-religious homes.
There is empirical data to test such a hypothesis. It was published well before Dawkins’ book, so he had ample opportunity at the time to know what science had to say. Christian Smith, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, led a massive, authoritative study called the National Study of Youth and Religion. The results were published in the 2005 book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Eyes of American Teenagers (with co-author Melinda Lundquist Denton), published by Oxford University Press (yes, that’s Dawkins’university). It is a gold-standard study, the best of its kind to date.
[...]
The findings are overwhelming. On page after page, chart after chart, on every one of the ninety-one variables studied, the closer teens were to the “Devoted” end of the scale, the healthier their lives were. These are the results of Dawkins’ “child abuse.” This is what he complains is so bad for children.
There are a few things to say about this study. The first is that what Edwards doesn't mention is how shallow the teens' commitment to their faith actually is. From MSNBC:

Though the phone survey depicted broad affinity with religion, the face-to-face interviews found that many teens’ religious knowledge was “meager, nebulous and often fallacious” and engagement with the substance of their traditions remarkably shallow. Most seemed hard put to express coherently their beliefs and what difference they make. 
Many were so detached from the traditions of their faith, says the report, that they’re virtually following a different creed in which an undemanding God exists mostly to solve problems and make people feel good. Truth in any absolute, theological sense, takes a back seat.
That says that it's not any great theological truth that is guiding teens, but simply adherence to tradition – and a fairly uncritical and apathetic adherence at that. An adherence that, if a recent Pew poll is accurate, may be eroding.

In the absence of religious 'truth', the correlates establish in the study leave much to be desired. It may be that delinquency issues precede, rather than follow, less religious devotion. This is logical given the fact that childrens' devotion is so shallow – rebellious or emotionally distressed youths are probably much less likely to placidly follow in the traditions of their parents. Conversely, it may be that otherwise emotionally healthy teens who have good relationships with their parents are also that much more likely to placidly follow traditions, such as attending church with their families on Sundays – even if they believe little of what they hear.

Edwards' (and Gilson's) criticism suffers from the old cum hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy: correlation does not imply causation. This is especially obvious in light of the utterly shallow, going-through-the-motions manner in which youth in the study could be said to be "devoted" to their faith. But more to the point, it doesn't address the substance of Dawkins' arguments – the importance of free thought, critical thinking, and freedom from coercion and indoctrination.



Yet another unimpressive chapter. I'll say it again – if you're going to critique atheist arguments, at least get the arguments right first. The fact that this book so far has relied so much on skewed or outright demonstrably false information is both a disservice to its target audience of believers and an embarrassment to the authors.

I'll say this though: the next chapter is much better. So stay tuned.




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