On the Side of Angels: Part One, “A Devils' Chaplain”

Peter S. Williams responds to A Devil’s Chaplain: selected essays by Richard Dawkins
Latha Menon (ed.), (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003)

Peter S. Williams

A Devil’s Chaplain is a collection of (mostly previously published) writings by prominent Oxford atheist Richard Dawkins: ‘Dawkins, Oxford University’s professor of the public understanding of science, and a vocal atheist, is quick to dismiss religious belief.  He has called anyone advocating a creator God ‘scientifically illiterate’. [1] It is just this sort of atheistically motivated rhetoric, which dismisses 40% of Dawkins’ fellow scientists as ‘scientifically illiterate’ in one ill-thought-out generalization, [2] that justifies Dawkins’ implied self-designation as ‘A Devil’s Chaplain.’ As Professor Alister McGrath - molecular biologist, theologian, and Principle of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford – observes: ‘Dawkins often seems like the polemical inversion of the Bible-bashing fundamentalist preacher, peddling his own certainties, excoriating the views of his rivals, and mocking the mental and moral abilities of those foolish enough to disagree with him.’ [3] In this series of reviews on the side of the angels, I will subject Dawkins’ certainties, as highlighted in A Devil’s Chaplain, to some critical analysis.

Part One: "A Devil’s Chaplain"

Darwin’s first great populariser, Victorian biologist Thomas Huxley, earned himself the nickname ‘Darwin’s bulldog’.  ‘In our own less decorous day,’ writes Robert Downey, ‘Dawkins deserves an even stronger epithet.’ [4] Charles Simonyi, Head of the Intentional Programming team in Microsoft’s research division, whose gift of £1.5 million to Oxford University established Dawkins in the ‘Simonyi Professorship of Public Understanding of Science’, suggests: ‘Darwin’s Rottweiler, perhaps’. [5] Now, by implication, Dawkins himself provides an even stronger epithet; one borrowed from Darwin himself: A Devil’s Chaplain.  A previously unpublished essay with this very title gives its themes to the book as a whole.

According to Dawkins, ‘Darwin was less than half joking when he coined the phrase Devil’s Chaplain in a letter to his friend Hooker in 1856’ (p. 8), saying: ‘What a book a Devil’s Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature’ (p. 8).  Dawkins quotes Darwin once again with approval: ‘I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars.’ (p. 8).  Here, at the very start of the book, we find our professor for the public understanding of science seeking to support his belief in evolution with a theological argument!  Why is this?

Professor of Public Understanding of Scientism

Dawkins says: ‘if I am asked for a single phrase to characterize my role as Professor of Public Understanding of Science, I think I would choose Advocate for Disinterested Truth.’ (p. 37.)  However, just as much as any New Age believer or biblical fundamentalist (two of Dawkins’ favourite targets), Dawkins is deeply committed to advocating a very particular version of the truth, namely, the worldview of Metaphysical Naturalism: ‘The central claim of metaphysical naturalism is that nothing exists outside the material, mechanical (that is, nonpurposeful), natural order.’ [6] Naturalism is the ‘orthodox’ metaphysical view of contemporary culture, despite the fact that its advocates are a relatively small number of academics, like Dawkins, with a disproportionate amount of cultural influence.  Beneath the media impression of cultural dominance, naturalism’s intellectual cracks are beginning to show.  As philosopher Terry L. Miethe reports:

Many philosophers are today talking about the collapse of modern atheism – not necessarily that there are less atheists, but that there is less reason for being one . . . because of the philosophical, scientific, and ethical evidence for the existence of God.  Even the editors of Philosophy Today have said: ‘No responsible philosopher can escape reflecting upon the unique character and problems of contemporary atheism. [7]

Naturalism has recently come under an unprecedented and withering barrage of high-calibre intellectual fire on multiple fronts. [8]

The fact that Dawkins is an atheist who equates naturalism with science (an equation philosophers of science call ‘scientism’) unfortunately means that his commitment to naturalism ends up undermining his vocation in the public understanding of science.  A more accurate description for Dawkins would be ‘Professor of Public Understanding of Scientism.’

The Darwinian Deduction

Darwin’s theory of evolution is an explanation of biological diversity in terms of a finely balanced combination of natural regularities and chance working over long periods of time (being an extrapolation from observed ‘micro-evolution’).  For atheists like Richard Dawkins, evolution is not so much the result of a ‘disinterested’ assessment of the available evidence as it is an assumption brought to its interpretation.  The naturalistic worldview required some sort of evolution on purely philosophical grounds long before Darwin proposed his theory of evolution ‘by means of natural selection’.  Belief in some sort of evolution can be traced back to the ancient Greeks.  This is why Dawkins can write of ‘the inescapable factual correctness of the devil’s Chaplain.’ (p. 11.)  As Kirsten Brikett observes:

it is polemically convenient for atheists if evolutionary theory is believed to be purely scientific. . .  Then when they claim that evolution disproves Christianity they can present this as a conclusion based on science.  It is not; it is a conclusion based on ideology, in fact a conclusion drawn before evolutionary theory was formulated at all. [9]

‘I wouldn’t start from here if I were you. . .’

One’s evaluation of evolution as a scientific theory is inevitably affected by prior philosophical beliefs about the existence or non-existence of God.  As Phillip E. Johnson notes: ‘A theory of biological origins that is in a general way like Darwinism follows fairly straightforwardly from the proposition that God is an illusion and nature is therefore all that exists. . .’ [10] Hence: ‘Darwinism is the answer to a specific question that grows out of philosophical naturalism. . .  The questions is: How must creation have occurred if we assume that God had nothing to do with it?’ [11] Answering this question is not at all the same thing as answering this question: ‘How did creation occur?’  An atheist would have to give the same answer to both questions, whereas an agnostic or a theist may or may not give quite different answers, as the evidence dictates.  At the very least, someone who is open to the possibility of God’s existence can and should be much more open-minded about the answer to the latter question than the atheist can be.

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga explains how he thinks Christians should approach the question of origins:

a Christian (naturally) believes. . . that God has created and sustains the world.  Starting from this position. . . we recognize that there are many ways in which God could have created the living things he has in fact created: how, in fact, did he do it? . . . Did it all happen just by way of the working of the laws of physics, or was there further divine activity. . ?  That’s the question. . .  Starting from the belief in God, we must look at the evidence and consider the probabilities as best we can. [12]

The fundamental question is not even ‘what is the best scientific account of reality’ but ‘what is the best account of reality given everything we know?’  If the answer to this question turns out to include evolution, then we should believe in evolution; but there is no telling before we actually look at all the evidence.  This scientific attitude to the question of origins only seems odd on the scientistic assumption that, as Dawkins’ fellow atheist Richard Lewontin claims, ‘science is the only begetter of truth.’ But of course, the claim that ‘science is the only begetter of truth’ isn’t something that science can establish as being true!  It’s not a scientific assertion, but a philosophical claim, and a self-contradictory one at that.  In which case, there must be more truth than can be known through science.

Dawkins’ Fudge

Dawkins’ scientistic confusion of naturalism with science causes him to fundamentally fudge the question of origins.  According to him, theists like William Paley (famous for his design argument for God [13] ) were right about the complexity of nature, but wrong about its explanation: ‘The only thing he got wrong – admittedly quite a big thing – was the explanation itself.  He gave the traditional religious answer. . .  The true explanation is utterly different, and it had to wait for one of the most revolutionary thinkers of all time, Charles Darwin.’ [14] Thus Dawkins implies that either Paley was right to argue that biological organisms are the result of design, or Darwin was right to argue that biological organisms are the result of nature and chance.  But of course, this is a false dilemma.  It is logically possible that Paley and Darwin are both right.

Natural selection may be an ‘indifferent’ (p. 9) blind watchmaker with no purpose in mind (because it has no mind), but natural selection may itself be the tool of a designer who does have purposes in mind.  After all, human engineers use computers running genetic algorithms as part of the design process.  Neither the computer nor the algorithm has a purpose in mind; but the engineers who design and run such systems certainly do!  Perhaps natural selection is analogous to such a purposefully designed system?  That’s not a possibility that science is competent to deal with.  Instead it is a philosophical question demanding a philosophically motivated answer.

Dawkins’ suggestion that evolution contradicts belief in creation can only be swallowed if we agree to define evolution and creation as mutually exclusive concepts.  But why do that?  As Phillip E. Johnson writes:

“Evolution” contradicts “creation” only when it is explicitly or tacitly defined as fully naturalistic evolution – meaning evolution that is not directed by any purposeful intelligence. . .  The essential point of creation has nothing to do with the timing or the mechanism the Creator chose to employ, but with the element of design or purpose.  In the broadest sense, a “creationist” is simply a person who believes that the world (and especially mankind) was designed, and exists for a purpose. [15]

When it comes to evaluating the competing worldviews of atheism and theism: ‘This is the real issue: not whether evolution is true or not, but whether or not we are created.’ [16] As an atheist, Dawkins believes that we are not created.  The assumption of atheism entails the truth of some sort of evolution, and thus supports belief in the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution as the best available naturalistic account of biology.

Dawkins writes as if the scientific theory of evolution discredits the metaphysical theory of theism (when it does not, indeed cannot, do anything of the kind) because his prior metaphysical belief in atheism discredits belief in any theory of biology except naturalistically interpreted evolution.  The reason Dawkins advocates naturalistic evolution has nothing to do with the scientific theory of evolution (a theory that theists can, and many do, accept) and everything to do with his philosophically motivated interpretation of the facts.  As Johnson wryly observes: ‘What a science based on naturalism tells us, not surprisingly, is that naturalism is true.’ [17] So let’s look at the theological argument Dawkins gives in ‘A Devil’s Chaplain’ for believing in naturalistic evolution.

‘I don’t believe you wanted to do that. . .’  The Argument from Imperfection

Recall Dawkins’ opening reference to Darwin’s coining of ‘a devil’s chaplain’ (p. 8.), who argued from the ‘clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature’ (p. 8), and an inability to persuade himself that a beneficent and omnipotent God’ would have designed such things as ‘the Ichneumonidae’ (which feeds from within upon the living bodies of caterpillars), to the implied conclusion that there is no such Creator; a conclusion from which it follows that some kind of naturalistic evolution must be true - hence Dawkins’ certainty about ‘the inescapable factual correctness of the devil’s Chaplain’ (p. 11).

In his recent paper, ‘Jettison the Arguments, or the Rule?  The Place of Darwinian Theological Themata in Evolutionary Reasoning’, university of Chicago philosopher Paul A. Nelson observes with interest that: ‘While presenting a line of evidence or argument for evolution, the author will, as a premise of his argument, make a theological claim.  The case for evolution, in short, takes an unmistakably theological turn.’ [18] After citing various examples – to which we can add Dawkins’ use of the devils’ chaplain, Nelson teases out the general form of such arguments ‘from imperfection’ for evolution:

1. If p is an instance of organic design, then p was produced either by a wise creator, or by descent with modification (evolution).

2. If p (an instance of organic design) was produced by a wise creator, then p should be perfect (or should exhibit no imperfections).

3. Organic design p is not perfect (or exhibits imperfections).

From these premises, the conclusion follows that:

4. Organic design p was not produced by a wise creator, but by descent with modification. [19]

Nelson goes on to argue that ‘Each premise of the argument is attended with difficulties.’ [20] For one thing, as we have already seen, ‘the first premise of the imperfection argument is a false dichotomy.’ [21] In reality, if p is an instance of organic design, then p may be produced by a wise creator using an intended process of descent with modification.

The second premise requires of us a high degree of confidence in making statements of the sort, ‘I don’t believe you wanted to do that. . .’, directed at God.  As Nelson writes, ‘any exponent of the argument must explain (1) what a “wise creator” or a “sensible God” is, and (2) what a “wise creator” would do.’ [22] Such judgements are not as easy to make as one might think.  After all, we are not sensible god’s!  Trying to second guess how a wise creator ought to have arranged things is surely analogous to the folly of an arts student attempting to forge the homework of a science major.  ‘Is it possible that biological entities judged imperfect when considered individually, might combine to form a macro-system judged perfect?’ [23] , asks Nelson, noting that ‘there is no reason for a creator to optimise one part of the universe at the expense of the whole.’ [24] As William P. Alston and Stephen John Wykstra have pointed out, the fact that finite human beings cannot discern any good reason for God allowing this or that state of affairs to exist is no good reason to suppose that he doesn’t have a good reason. [25] After all, if a novice at chess were to see a grand-master sacrifice one of his pieces, but couldn’t work out what greater good this apparently futile move served, would that be a sufficient reason to doubt the ability of the chess master?  Of course not.  Given that the cognitive difference between ourselves and God is at least as great as that between a chess novice and a grand-master, it follows that our inability to see why God does or permits this or that state of affairs can hardly count as a knock-down reason to doubt God’s ability or goodness.

The third premise likewise calls for judgments that are far from straight forward.  Nelson takes as an example Stephen Jay Gould’s judgement that the Panda’s thumb is ‘highly inefficient’: ‘It follows that in finding existing Panda’s to be imperfect, Gould must have some notion of an ideal panda, departure from which evokes a judgement of imperfection.  So what does an ideal panda look like?’ [26] As Maynard Smith points out:

it is clearly impossible to say what is the “best” phenotype unless one knows the range of possibilities.  If there were no constraints on what is possible, the best phenotype would live forever, would be impregnable to predators, would lay eggs at an infinite rate, and so on. [27]

Other biologists make different judgements about the Panda’s ‘thumb’: ‘When watching a panda eat leaves. . . we were always impressed by its dexterity.  Forepaws and mouth work together with great precision, with great economy. . .’ [28]

Moreover, as it stands, this ‘argument from imperfection’ does not, strictly speaking, contradict belief in a wise creator; for the wise creator may be directly responsible for some examples of organic design without being directly responsible for every example.  As Nelson points out: ‘The imperfection argument presupposes a static theory of creation, according to which an organic design p appears today as it was originally created.  Yet few if any creationists would defend such a theory.’ [29]

Darwin got himself trapped between seeing everything in the biological world as the result of direct divine design, and seeing everything as the result of an unintended evolutionary process: ‘I am conscious that I am in an utterly hopeless muddle.  I cannot think that the world, as we see it, is the result of chance; and yet I cannot look at each separate thing as the result of Design.’ [30] Perhaps the way out of Darwin’s muddle is to reject this false dilemma (which is accepted by Dawkins) by hypothesising that life is the result of a combination of primary, direct design and the secondary causes of an intended evolutionary process.

In order to generalise the conclusion of the argument from imperfection to exclude the existence of a creator, one would have to add Darwin’s implied muddled premise that:

5.  Either every instance of organic design is produced by a wise creator (and appears today as it was originally created), or every instance of organic design is produced by naturalistic evolution (descent with modification)’

in order to arrive at the atheistically desirable conclusion that:

6.  Therefore, every instance of organic design is produced by naturalistic evolution (descent with modification) and not by a wise creator.’

However, this crucial fifth premise depends upon the false dichotomy between creation and evolution, and a questionable static theory of creation.  Perhaps, as Nelson suggests: ‘extant organic designs are the products not just of original creative intent, but also of the perturbating effects of secondary causes, e.g. natural selection, mutation, genetic drift.’ [31] The supposition that a wise creator would not create a world that includes secondary causes and their results is just as dogmatic as the supposition that the theory of evolution contradicts the existence of a wise creator.

Biological Imperfection and the Argument from Evil

Finally, we should observe that the ‘argument from imperfection’ is simply a particular example of the standard ‘argument from evil’ against the existence of God.  As such, it is vulnerable to a number of standard and widely accepted philosophical rebuttals. [32] In particular, doesn’t the judgement that nature contains ‘imperfections’ that a wise creator ought not to be responsible for, itself imply the existence of an objective standard of perfection that could only find its ultimate ground in the perfect being of God?  As Stephen E. Parrish says: ‘One of the greatest weaknesses of arguments against God’s existence from the problem of evil is the fact that they assume notions of objective moral value that have no metaphysical basis in the naturalistic worldview.  Their arguments assume a notion of moral value that is viable only if the God they are trying to disprove actually exists.’ [33] In this way the problem of evil backfires on the atheist, for as Norman L. Geisler writes: ‘to disprove God via evil one must assume the equivalent of God by way of an ultimate standard of justice beyond this world. . .’ [34]

For Dawkins, ‘natural selection is. . . the only known force capable of producing the illusion of purpose which so strikes all who contemplate nature.’ (p. 10.)  In The Blind Watchmaker Dawkins defined biology as ‘the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.’ [35] Here we see Dawkins recognizing that:

1) biological systems are complex, 2) they have the appearance of design, and 3) the design is apparently for a purpose.  It is only the assumption of naturalism that prevents him from saying, “What looks like a duck, acts like a duck, sounds like a duck, and smells like a duck, must be a duck.” [36]

Indeed, Dawkins’ own reductionism strengthens the analogy: ‘Each one of us is a machine, like an airliner only much more complicated’ [37] Paley’s analogical argument stands.  In which case, why is Dawkins certain that the apparent design in living things is only ‘the illusion of purpose’ (p. 10)?  Because he believes that evolution is true and that evolution contradicts creation.  Why does he believe that evolution contradicts creation?  Because he interprets evolution naturalistically.  But why does he interpret evolution naturalistically?  For the same reason that he believes in evolution in the first place: because he doesn’t believe in God.  And what justification does the professor for the public understanding of science give in ‘A Devil’s Chaplain’ for not believing in God?  It isn’t a scientific justification (such a thing is in principle impossible).  Rather, it is a philosophical justification, and a flawed one at that.  Hence Richard Dawkins uses a deeply flawed philosophical argument against the existence of a ‘wise creator’ in order to justify his belief in an evolutionary theory which elsewhere (including later in A Devil’s Chaplain) he presents as if it discredits belief in a ‘wise creator’!

Implications and Assumptions

‘A Devil’s Chaplain’ goes on to consider the implications of Dawkin’s atheistically inspired belief in naturalistic evolution; which actually means the implications of his atheistic assumption that are transmitted through his naturalistically interpreted belief in evolution.

The first implication is that ‘Nature is neither kind nor cruel but indifferent’ (p. 9.)  Of course, even theists believe that; it’s just that they believe in a loving creator of a nature that is fundamentally good (theists don’t anthropomorphise nature; that’s certain forms of pantheism).  Clearly, what Dawkins means is that Ultimate Reality is both impersonal and material, having no attitude towards life whatsoever, and being thus incapable of grounding any objective moral values.  Unfortunately, Dawkins doesn’t notice that this first implication of Darwinism undermines his argument for Darwinism from the imperfections of nature that a good God supposedly ought not to create or permit if He existed!  As philosopher Peter van Inwagen argues:

I do think we must be able to speak of correct value judgements if the Problem of Evil is to be of any interest.  An eminent philosopher of biology has said in one place that God, if He existed, would be indescribably wicked for having created a world like this one, and, in another place, that morality is an illusion, an illusion that we are subject to because of the evolutionary advantage it confers.  These two theses do not seem to me to add up to a coherent whole. [38]

Dawkins quotes ‘one of Darwin’s most thoughtful successors’ (p. 9.) George C. Williams:

What with other than condemnation is a person with any moral sense supposed to respond to a system in which the ultimate purpose in life is to be better than your neighbour at getting genes into future generations. . ? (p. 9.)

The obvious problem with this is that a naturalistic world-view provides no basis for objectively legitimising such a ‘moral sense’.  If the ultimate ‘purpose’ in life is indeed to be better than your neighbour at getting genes into future generations, then it is clear that morality doesn’t matter on its own terms – but only as a pragmatic evolutionary means to the pragmatic evolutionary end.  Goodness has nothing to do with it.  Neither does any genuine purpose.  There are only material causes and their material results.  On the other hand, if God exists, even if we grant that evolution is true, the ultimate, objectively valuable and genuine purpose of life is not to be better than your neighbour, but to love them in relationship with God.

Dawkins protests that while he supports Darwinism ‘as a scientist’, he is ‘a passionate anti-Darwinian when it comes to politics and how we should conduct our human affairs.’ (p. 10-11.)  In other words, he doesn’t like the ‘law of the jungle’ and sees no reason to base human actions on that law.  Just because nature is uncaring is no good reason for humans to be uncaring.  Quite so.  Dawkins is right when he says that scientific Darwinism doesn’t justify moral Darwinism.  As he explained in an interview with Nick Pollard:

I can show that from a Darwinian point of view there is more Darwinian advantage to a male in being promiscuous and a female being faithful, without saying that I therefore think human males are justified in being promiscuous and cheating on their wives.  There is no logical connection between what is and what ought. . .  The Darwinian world is a very nasty place: the weakest go to the wall.  There’s no pity, no compassion.  All those things I abhor, and I will work in my own life in the interests of thoroughly un-Darwinian things like compassion. [39]

Dawkins recognizes that there is no logical connection between ‘what is and what ought’ to be.  Indeed.  The heart of the atheist’s meta-ethical problem, as philosopher Winfried Corduan explains:

is committing the fallacy of trying to get an “ought” from an “is.” He or she is trying to justify prescriptive moral laws on the basis of descriptive data.  The atheist is after an obligatory moral code without anything that makes it obligatory.  To have commandments, they must be commanded in some way, but the atheist’s system does not allow for such a possibility. [40]

Darwinism provides no grounds for saying that someone who takes the opposite moral point of view to Dawkins is in any absolute sense wrong to do so.  As Dawkins tacitly admits, either way, it’s all just a matter of choice:

If somebody used my views to justify a completely self-centred lifestyle, which involved trampling all over other people in any way they chose - roughly what, I suppose, at a sociological level social Darwinists did – I think I would be fairly hard put to it to argue on purely intellectual grounds.  I think it would be more: “This is not a society in which I wish to live.  Without having a rational reason for it necessarily, I’m going to do whatever I can to stop you doing this.” . . . I couldn’t, ultimately, argue intellectually against somebody who did something I found obnoxious.  I think I could finally only say, “Well, in this society you can’t get away with it” and call the police. [41]

In other words, in the final analysis ‘might makes right’ and the Darwinian ‘law of the jungle’ (from which Dawkins is trying to escape), rules.  The choice between lifestyles, between Nazism and Liberal Democracy, is nothing but a nonrational manifestation of a Neitzchian ‘will to power’.  Dawkins’ atheistic worldview doesn’t justify ‘a completely self-centred lifestyle’, but then it doesn’t justify any lifestyle.  As agnostic philosopher Anthony O’Hear says of Dawkins, ‘this particular Darwinian is quite unable to explain why we have an obligation to act against our ‘selfish’ genes.’ [42] Dawkins himself admits: ‘I realise this is very weak, and I’ve said I don’t feel equipped to produce moral arguments in the way I feel equipped to produce arguments of a cosmological and biological kind.  But I still think it’s a separate issue from beliefs in cosmic truths.’ [43] It is a separate issue in that ‘cosmic truths’ about an ‘indifferent’ (p. 9.) reality can never discredit Dawkins’ choice to give money to Oxfam; but it is far from being a separate issue in that ‘cosmic truths’ about an ‘indifferent’ reality can never discredit Hitler’s choice to exterminate the Jews.  As Bryan Appleyard observes:

scientific man. . . may construct private absolutes of faith and morality, but, in public, he must inhabit a fluid, relative world.  So, for example, his moral choices cannot be made by referring to an outside order or system, they can only be his choices.  Given that, he will always be aware that there are different choices made by other people.  He cannot argue absolutely against these different choices, he can only say that he thinks they are wrong. . .  There is only relative right or wrongness; there is no absolute form of either. . .  he cannot even tell his children with any conviction that they must believe what he does because it is true.  They can simply point out that he is offering them not a fact but just another opinion among countless others. [44]

Hence Dawkins’ moral choices are undermined in the sense that they are unmasked as being purely subjective.

Dawkins chides Bernard Shaw for embracing ‘a confused idea of Lamarckian evolution purely because of Darwinism’s moral implications’ (p. 9.), quoting Shaw’s comments in the preface of Back to Methuselah:

When its whole significance dawns on you, your heart sinks into a heap of sand within you.  There is a hideous fatalism about it, a ghastly and damnable reduction of beauty and intelligence, of strength and purpose, of honour and aspiration. (p. 9.)

However, this nihilistic conclusion is not one that is read off reality by scientific observation or implied by the theory of evolution, but read into reality as a logical consequence of an assumed atheism.  Shaw was wrong to reject the theory of evolution by natural selection because of its moral implications, but only because as a scientific theory it has no moral implications.  On the other hand, there is nothing wrong in rejecting the naturalistic framing of Darwin’s evolutionary theory on the grounds that it is contradicted by the reality of objective moral values.  To do so is simply to accept the moral argument for the existence of God. [45]

Dawkins’ deals very briefly with the moral argument, dismissing it as the ‘The same kind of thing [that] drives today’s populist opposition to evolution.’ (p. 9.)  Once again, Dawkins obscures the real issue by confusing evolution as a scientific theory and the Darwinian naturalistic interpretation of evolution within an atheistic worldview.  He quotes Christian apologist Kyle Butt:

The most evolution could produce would be the idea that ‘might makes right.  When Hitler exterminated approximately 10 million innocent men, women and children, he acted in complete agreement with the theory of evolution an din complete disagreement with everything humans know to be right and wrong. . . (p. 9.) [46]

Noting that the ‘opposite response to the callousness of natural selection is to exult in it’(p. 9.), like Nietzsche and Hitler, Dawkins proceeds to agree with George C. Williams and Kyle Butt that doing so is wrong, only (and this is the crucial point that Butt is making) without providing a sufficient moral basis for adopting such a position.  As professor of philosophy William Lane Craig (who can hardly be dismissed as a populist opponent of evolution) argues:

If there is no God, then any ground for regarding the herd morality evolved by homo sapiens as objectively true seems to have been removed.  After all, what is so special about human beings?  They are just accidental by-products of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time.  Some action, say, incest, may not be biologically or socially advantageous and so in the course of human evolution has become taboo; but there is on the atheistic view nothing really wrong about committing incest. . .  the non-conformist who chooses to flout the herd morality is doing nothing more serious than acting unfashionably. [47]

Dawkins exhorts his readers, quoting Thomas Huxley ‘the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process. . . but in combating it’ (p. 10.), and repeating his assertion that: ‘We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators’ (p. 11); but he does nothing to explain how the freedom to rebel against the law of the jungle can be accommodated within a naturalistic worldview, which would seem to imply determinism. [48]

Dawkins concludes ‘A Devil’s Chaplain’ with the affirmation that ‘There is deep refreshment to be had from standing full-face into the keen wind of understanding’ (p. 13.)  Understanding, that is, that one faces a choice between ‘being satisfied with easy answers and cheap comforts, living a warm comfortable lie’ (p. 13.), sucking ‘at the pacifier of faith in immortality’; or accepting ‘The daemonic alternative urged by my mature Devil’s Chaplain’ (p. 13.)  What is this daemonic alternative?  Dawkins says it is ‘the joy of knowing that you have grown up, faced up to what existence means; to the fact that it is temporary and all the more precious for it.’ (p. 13.)  But strip away the fine flourish of rhetoric, and we find nothing here but the cold undergrowth of nihilism.  Life is not ‘all the more precious’ for being ‘temporary’, because nothing has any objective value within the naturalistic worldview.  This is the whole point of Dawkins’ observations that nature is ‘indifferent’ (p. 9.) and that ‘There is no logical connection between what is and what ought. . .’ [49] Why accept the nihilistic truths of naturalism if doing so is not an objectively good thing to do and embracing the ‘warm comfortable lie’ of religious belief is not an objectively bad thing to do?  Of course, if embracing a ‘warm comfortable lie’ is an objectively bad thing to do, then the moral argument for God would lead us to conclude that it is naturalism, and not theism, that constitutes the lie.

Let’s be grown-up about this

Grown-ups can feel that everything child-like is child-ish, and that since adults shouldn’t be childish, they shouldn’t be child-like.  Such people don’t realize that the fear of being thought childish by one’s peers because of child-like behaviour (e.g. enjoying cartoons, having a go on the swings, etc) is in itself childish.  It is only children who are desperate to ‘grow up’.

Atheists have been alternatively nagging humanity to ‘grow up’, and predicting that humanity will inevitably ‘grow up’, for a long time now (and without seeming to notice the tension between these pessimistic and optimistic sides to their atheistic coinage).  Thus Dawkins writes about ‘my mature Devil’s Chaplain’ (p. 13.) and ‘the joy of knowing that you have grown up’ (p. 13.) that comes with accepting the naturalistic, nihilistic worldview.  But those who make such accusations never stop to think that maybe some forms of belief in the supernatural are more akin to the child-like ability to enjoy a go on the swings rather than the childish inability to take turns nicely.  Jesus said, ‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’ (Matthew 18:3)  But the child-likeness Jesus taught has everything to do with a child’s capacity for trust and nothing to do with a childish inability to reason: ‘When I was a child,’ said Paul, ‘I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.  When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.’ (1 Corinthians 13:11): ‘When Jesus said you had to enter the kingdom like a child, he mean you have to enter with a child’s trust, not with a child’s understanding.’ [50]


The devil’s chaplain wants us to swap the child-like ‘happiness’ (p. 13) of God’s objectively valuable, meaningful and purposeful eternal kingdom for the amoral, meaningless, purposeless and ‘temporary’ (p. 13) nihilistic alternative.  Dawkins tries to convince us that accepting this ‘daemonic alternative’ (p. 13) is the only way to keep faith with the truth; specifically the truth of evolution, which is represented as a scientifically established fact incompatible with the existence of God.  However, the devil’s chaplain believes in evolution primarily because he doesn’t believe in God (it is ‘the only known force capable of producing the illusion of purpose’ in nature, p. 10); and he doesn’t believe in God because he accepts a philosophical ‘argument from imperfections’ riddled with false dilemmas, questionable assumptions, and moral judgements that (if taken objectively) imply the existence of the very God the argument is designed to disprove.  If we reject those questionable assumptions, and the false dilemma between believing in evolution and believing in creation, then, whatever we make of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, we can stand on the side of the angels, who rationally place their child-like trust in the God of all truth.

[1] Julia Hinde, ‘Does God Exist?’, Harriet Swain (ed.), Big Questions in Science, (London, Jonathan Cape, 2002), p. 2.

[2] ‘a 1996 survey still found 40 percent of US scientists believed in God.’ - Julia Hinde, ‘Does God Exist?’, ibid, p. 4.

[3] Alister McGrath, The Re-Enchantment of Nature, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2003), p. 153.

[4] Robert Downey in Eastsideweek, December 11, 1996, @

[5] ibid.

[6] Ronald H. Nash, ‘Miracles and Conceptual Systems’ in R. Douglas Geivett and Gary R. Habermas (ed.’s), In Defence of Miracles (Leicester: Apollos, 1997), p. 119.

[7] Terry L. Miethe in Terry L. Miethe and Anthony Flew, Does God Exist? A Believer and an Atheist Debate, (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991), p. 196.

[8] cf. William A. Dembski, ‘Intelligent Design as a Theory of Information’; Robert C. Koons, ‘The Incompatibility of Naturalism and Scientific Realism’; Alvin Plantinga, ‘An Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism’; Victor Reppert, ‘The Argument from Reason’; Dallas Willard, ‘Knowledge and Naturalism

[9] Kirsten Birkett, The Essence of Darwinism, p. 118.  cf. Benjamin Wiker, Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists, (Downers grove: IVP, 2002).

[10] Phillip E. Johnson, Reason in the Balance, (Downers Grove: IVP), p. 16.

[11] Phillip E. Johnson, ‘What is Darwinism’, Objection Sustained, (Downers Grove: IVP, 1998), p. 33.

[12] Alvin Plantinga, ‘Evolution, Neutrality, and Antecedent Probability: a reply to Van Till and McMullen’, p. 5-6.

[13] cf. William Paley, Natural Theology

[14] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, (London: Penguin, 1991), p. 41.

[15] Phillip E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial, (Downers Grove: IVP), p. 4 & 115.  According to a 1991 Gallup poll, creation in this broad sense is accepted by 87 percent of Americans.

[16] Kirsten Birkett, op cit, p. 119.

[17] Johnson, Reason in the Balance, (Downers Grove: IVP), p. 8.

[18] Paul A. Nelson, ‘Jettison the Arguments, or the Rule?  The Place of Darwinian Theological Themata in Evolutionary Reasoning’, p. 1.

[19] Nelson, ibid, p. 3-4.

[20] Nelson, ibid, p. 4.

[21] Nelson, ibid, p. 4.

[22] Nelson, ibid, p. 5.

[23] Nelson, ibid, p. 5.

[24] Nelson, ibid, p. 5.

[25] cf. William P. Alston, ‘The Inductive Argument from Evil’ & Stephen John Wykstra, ‘Rowe’s Noseeum Arguments from Evil’, in Daniel Howard-Snyder (ed.), The Evidential Problem of Evil, (Indiana University Press1996).

[26] Nelson, op cit, p. 7.

[27] Quoted by Nelson, ibid, p. 7.

[28] George Schaller et al, The Giant Pandas of Wolong, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 4.

[29] Nelson, op cit, p. 4.

[30] Charles Darwin, as quoted in N. C. Gillespie, Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation, (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1979), p. 87.

[31] Nelson, op cit, p. 5.

[32] cf. Kelly James Clark, ‘I Believe in God, the Father, Almighty’; Shandon L. Guthrie, ‘Assessing The Problem Of Evil And The Existence Of God’; Peter Kreeft, ‘The Problem of Evil’; Peter S. Williams, ‘Terror from the Skies and the Existence of God’; Peter S. Williams, The Case for God, (Monarch, 1999).

[33] Stephen E. Parrish, ‘A Tale of Two Theisms’, footnote 53, in Francis J. Beckwith et al (ed.’s), The New Mormon Challenge, (Zondervan, 2002), p. 459-460.

[34] Norman L Geisler, Christian Apologetics, (Baker, 1995), p. 233.

[35] Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, Preface, p. x.

[36] Ralph O. Muncaster, Dismantling Evolution: Building the Case for Intelligent Design, (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House, 2003), p. 185.

[37] Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, p. 3.

[38] Peter van Inwagen, ‘The Problems of Evil, Air, & Silence’ in Daniel Howard-Snyder (ed.), The Evidential Problem of Evil, (Indiana University Press1996), p. 162.

[39] Dawkins, ‘Nick Pollard talks to Dr. Richard Dawkins’.

[40] Winfried Corduan, No Doubt about It, (College Press), p. 87.

[41] Dawkins, ‘Nick Pollard talks to Dr. Richard Dawkins’.

[42] Anthony O’Hear, Beyond Evolution, p. 103.

[43] Dawkins, ‘Nick Pollard talks to Dr. Richard Dawkins’.

[44] Bryan Appleyard, Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Man, (London: Picador, 1993), p. 11.

[45] William Lane Craig, ‘The Indispensability of Theological Meta-Ethical Foundations for Morality’; J.P. Moreland, ‘The Ethical Inadequacy of Naturalism’; Peter S. Williams, ‘Terror from the Skies and the Existence of God’; Peter S. Williams, The Case for God, (Monarch, 1999).

[46] Kyle Butt, ‘Ideas have Consequences

[47] William Lane Craig, ‘The Indispensability of Theological Meta-Ethical Foundations for Morality

[48] cf. Gregory Koukl, ‘Dominoes, Determinism, and Naturalism

[49] Dawkins, ‘Nick Pollard talks to Dr. Richard Dawkins’.

[50] J. Budziszewski, How To Stay Christian In College, (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1999), p. 29.