More than a decade has passed since the release of the infamous The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. To call it influential would be an understatement, as the book sold more than three million copies in eight years and a number of different authors, including Alvin Plantinga, Michael Ruse, Richard Swinburne, William Lane Craig et al have exhaustively reviewed it. Despite such reviews, the question of where this work fits in theological and philosophical arguments on the existence of God, which questions it answers and which it leaves unanswered, remains under-explored.
I will first lay out Dawkins’ central argument denying the existence of God, then explain some parameters put forth for defining God, and finally, offer some refutations for Dawkins’ arguments in a manner that opens up philosophical debate to theological contentions. Dawkins’ book does not represent a triumph of the atheist intellectual capacity, but rather a failure of religious institutions of that time to reach out to their respective audiences and engage in effective dialogue.
The New Atheists and Modern Philosophy’s ‘God’ Conundrum
The New Atheist movement rose in popularity after 9/11, riding the waves of anti-religious sentiment. Four writers, popularly referred to as ‘The Four Horsemen’ of the Atheist community, form the core of their thought: Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins.
Philosophical theologian, David Bentley Hart, best describes their works as,
rhetorical victories against childish caricatures. 
These caricatures are the result of a cultural deprivation that began with the removal of philosophical discourse from modern education. Alasdair Maclntyre presents a thesis in his book on moral philosophy, After Virtue, where he asks the reader to picture a scenario that is evidently applicable to the contemporary understanding of religion and God. Maclntyre proposes a world where, due to a crippling global disaster catalyzed by unchecked scientific advancement, the population rebels against all scientific knowledge and destroys any books or resources related to the subject. Later, when people realize they had made a mistake, they begin to collect remnants of this knowledge in the form of isolated pages and equations. The issue, however, is these are all de-contextualized: their meaning no longer apparent and the knowledge almost unusable. Our understanding of God and religion has similarly become fragmented and unintelligible, resulting in the strawman caricatures used to attack God by the New Atheist movement.
Dawkins’ Central Argument
Dawkins posits what he finds to be the greatest argument against the existence of God, which proceeds along the following basic line of thought:
- One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect has been to explain how the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arises.
- The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself.
- The temptation is a false one because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer.
- The most ingenious and powerful explanation is Darwinian evolution by natural selection.
- We don’t have an equivalent theory like natural selection for physics, one that gives a plausible or intuitive explanation for how the universe came to be.
- We should not give up the hope for a better theory for physics. Indeed, such a theory must almost certainly exist.
- Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist. 
Dawkins correctly understands the explanatory power that evolutionary theory carries; indeed, it is the unifying principle under which much of biology makes sense. For years, evolutionary theory has been branded as the demystifying force that brought humanity out of the ignorance of spontaneous creation: the idea that God suddenly created all life forms on earth. For Dawkins, evolutionary theory represents the power of scientific theories to explain gaps in understanding that he claims eliminate the need for God. Dawkins thus believes that, one day, physics will also find its Darwin and advancements in physics will eventually fill in the gaps preventing us from knowing with absolute certainty that God does not exist.
One cannot help but lament Dawkins’ trivial understanding of God and the nature of reality. What Dawkins is unable (or perhaps unwilling) to account for – as David Bentley Hart suggests – is the idea that the universe is a totally self-sufficient entity, capable of sustaining itself, is not something that can be verified deductively or empirically . In other words, the question of whether the universe is an independent entity is itself dependent upon the nature of the extra-universal environment, a setting that is surely out of the reach of scientific inquiry. For example, one would not be able to determine when standing on the inside of a wire, if the electric current within the wire is self-produced by the system itself or if it is supplied by an outside source of electricity. Similarly, Dawkins hopes for a grand cosmological explanation without understanding that the very question of existence and sustenance is outside the scope of science.
Biological evolution is an understanding of life from within the universe. However, the coming into existence of the universe itself is a completely different question that requires a different set of tools to approach an answer. Dawkins’ strongest argument, then, becomes an incorrigible set of fantastic obfuscation. Even his faith in the evolutionary process is misguided, as he admits that modern evolutionary theory does not seek to explain the beginning of life .
God is not Zeus!
Having established reasonable doubt regarding Dawkins’ understanding about the universe, let us now explore the “god” that Dawkins seeks to refute. All great theistic traditions make a qualitative difference between the supreme transcendent being that sustains all of life and the contingent demiurge that exists within the universe. Even polytheistic traditions like Hinduism make this distinction between the eternal Godhead and the various avatars that exist in the world. Strangely, Dawkins doesn’t define God properly in his book, but hastily assumes a being that substitutes for scientific explanation.
The New Atheists, or caricature atheists, seek to refute god: a temporal, contingent being, who exists within time and space. These demiurge figures often represented in myths are powerful, splendid, and magnificent, but they are not self-sufficient entities and certainly not the “God” that all great theistic traditions describe. The bearded craftsman in the sky, replacing the laws of nature, and filling gaps of understanding essentially underlines this “god.” The concept of a demiurge is the focal point of the New Atheist critique. This galactic builder is responsible for constructing the world and then in splendid fashion, leaving his magnum opus for human spectating. This is why even intelligent people like Stephen Hawking made the categorical error of mistaking scientific explanation as an alternative for God.
God is the eternal Supreme Being, who is omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent, without beginning, without end, the one who has ever-lasting existence. All things receive their being from Him. All things are dependent upon Him and have no self-sufficiency except through Him, who is the eternal foundation upon which all things continue to exist. These positions are all generally agreed upon by almost all theistic traditions .
It would then be incorrect to reject the concept of “God” based on empirical investigation. God cannot be empirically verified, for if He were, He would be contingent and finite like the world. However, God is not contingent; he is the necessary being that actualizes existence and keeps it sustained. The search for God can then only be deduced via inductive, deductive means, and through spiritual experiences like revelations. Comparing this necessary metaphysical being to cartoons such as Zeus is a lamentable academic conclusion.
Hawking discards God, claiming the law of gravity explains the universe’s coming into existence. However, this way of thinking treats God as a prior cause in a temporal chain, whereas God is a reality, not a temporality, and is necessary for the emergence of all possible worlds and their related events .
Dawkins and the New Atheists construct and then deconstruct their own creation: a lesser, limited, and mangled god wholly removed from the theistic understanding of an omnipotent, transcendent God outside of the universe and above empirical measurement.
Popular Arguments against God’s Existence
Dawkins’ vague presentation of his arguments against God’s existence is striking. His first target is a criticism of Aquinas’ five proofs. While I won’t tackle each of his criticisms comprehensively, I’ll make enough comments for the reader to understand the large amounts of subtleties that Dawkins ignores. Aquinas’ five proofs are as follows:
- The Unmoved Mover. Nothing moves without a prior mover. This leads us to a regress, from which the only escape is God. Something had to make the first move and that something we call God.
- The Uncaused Cause. Nothing is caused by itself. Every effect has a prior cause, and again we are pushed back into regress. This has to be terminated by a first cause, which we call God.
- The Cosmological Argument. There must have been a time when no physical things existed. However, since physical things exist now, there must have been something non-physical to bring them into existence, and that something we call God.
- The Argument from Degree. We notice that things in the world differ. There are degrees of, say, goodness or perfection. However, we judge these degrees only by comparison with a maximum.
- The Teleological Argument or Argument from Design. Things in the world, especially living things, look as though they have been designed. Nothing that we know looks designed unless it is designed. Therefore there must have been a designer, and we call him God.
Dawkins dismisses the first three of these proofs simply because they all seek to answer the problem of an infinite regress by proposing God as the solution to terminate it. Dawkins suggests that while many things such as elements have their natural ends as atoms with a certain number of protons and electrons, God is not needed at any stage in the process.
In doing so, Dawkins, again, presents erroneous refutations to misinterpreted arguments. He does not understand that proofs (2) and (3) are not the same, making his claim that they all lead to a termination of infinite regress insufficient. There are two common arguments put forth for the emergence of the cosmos: the first being the oft-cited Kalam cosmological argument and the second known as the Leibniz cosmological argument. The first requires an end to an infinite regress, hence a first cause. The second, however, doesn’t necessarily require a first cause, but instead argues that there must be an explanation for a particular state of affairs. Even if the universe was infinitely old, or part of an infinite regress, it doesn’t explain how why there is a chain in the first place. This principle is known as the Principle of Sufficient Reason, and while it could be contested, it nonetheless is defendable.
Dawkins strangely asserts the Cosmological argument is untrue without addressing its premises in a coherent way. It is beyond the scope of this review to show why either the Kalam or Leibniz Cosmological argument is valid and defendable, but a cursory view of the literature on the subject affirms that the matter is not nearly as simple as Dawkins would have us believe   .
Thomist philosopher, Edward Feser, has best criticised Dawkins’ objections, affirming that Dawkins does not understand Aristotelian metaphysics. Feser argues that although all three proofs eventually lead to God, they begin in different ways. If you look at the first proof (1), it mentions motion, another way of describing change. What Aquinas is describing is the actualization of potentiality, meaning if something is logically possible, i.e. has the potential, then what actualizes it, or makes that potententiality real, or come into being, is God.
The second begins with the idea of efficient cause. This would be something external/other to the thing being changed: namely, something that interacts as an agent (reason) with the thing to be changed: a primary source for the change. For example, an engineer could be the efficient cause for the development of a car.
The third proof argues from the idea of contingency. Something is contingent if in theory it can fail to exist. You and I are both contingent, as we can fail to exist. This is in stark contrast to necessary truths or beings. A necessary truth, for example, is that one plus one equals two or the statement that a part cannot be bigger than a whole.
Dawkins then attempts to address Aquinas’s fourth and fifth proofs. I will refrain from commenting in too much detail regarding Aquinas’s fourth proof. What I am more interested in however, is the teleological argument (fifth proof), more commonly known as the design argument. For Aquinas, the design argument does not rest on biological complexity, but on things far more rudimentary. The fact that there exist regularities, such as the laws of nature and causes that precede effects, is sufficient evidence for his fifth proof.
Dawkins’ arguments against the existence of God are caricatures and void of any meaning or legitimate research. He resorts to refuting the “argument from religious scientists,” an argument not used by any serious theist, and Dawkins is guilty for utilizing the very same thing for atheism, affirming his weak understanding of religious philosophy and theology.
Promulgating Islamic Arguments in Debates on God
There is exhaustive literature on many of the arguments presented here, including those specifically targeted at Dawkins’ book, but few analyse the sociocultural changes that brought us here. 9/11 galvanized an emotional reaction from people and gave impetus to the New Atheist movement to contextualize their point in light of these events. Religion was the scapegoat for society’s problems and purportedly, an easy escape from humanity’s chaos and disorder: a barrier to human progress. The true source of this ignorance, however, is more sinister and dangerous: cultural deprivation.
As a teacher, I interact with my students on a regular basis regarding questions of God and atheism. The responses I receive from them are often inadequate. Most of them focus on mythology, presenting religion as collection of imaginary stories that are relegated to nothing more than building blocks in our historical tradition. Few can coherently formulate an argument for or against God. Philosophical thinking and rigour have become depraved and absent in early education.
Muslims must revisit our extensive scholarly corpus. The recent rise of apostasy is not fueled by worthy arguments, as most of today’s atheists are nothing compared to atheist thinkers across the millennia. The Islamic tradition has always held the necessary tools to deal with such questions. Basic texts in Aqeedah (Islamic creed) address the question of what God is, far from the caricature Dawkins seems to attack.
6. Thus, it is necessary that our lord have (1) existence, (2) Pre-existence, then (3) everlastingness extended (to infinity).
7. (4) Dissimilarity from His creation; then (5) self-sufficiency And (6) absolute oneness: [There is] no toil [in what God does]
8. (7) Power, (8) will, furthermore (9) life And (10) knowledge. Proof [of these attributes] is the creation of existent things. 
The poem, “The Creed of Deliverance,” by Muhammad Ibn Ja’far Al-Kattani above is an aqeedah text is taught at the elementary level to children in Morocco and Mauritania. A cursory view shows how the concept of God portrayed in these verses aligns with the concept of God I discussed above. Though there are volumes of work dealing with God’s existence, written by Imam Fakhrudin Razi, Ibn Sina, Imam Al-Ghazali, Shaykh Ibn Taymiyya, etc. what is missing is the ability to convey and relate these in the modern context.
People like Dawkins have gained popularity because Muslims haven’t fully explored their own conceptions of bridging theology with other fields. We are in a desperate need for an Islamic philosophy of science, psychology, sociology, the nature of cause, etc. Future articles on Traversing Tradition will explore the concept of bridging science and theology, specifically focusing on God and causality and highlighting how thinkers like Ali Sedad Bey have already contributed significantly to fields such as physics and theology from the Islamic perspective .
- Causal principle: Every event has a cause.
- Principle of sufficient reason: For every fact F, there must be a sufficient reason why F is the case.
- Teleological argument: Also known as design arguments, suggest that certain features of life, or/and our universe are so complex that they must point towards an intelligent designer/cause.
- Dawkins, R., 2016. The God Delusion. Random House. (page 77)
- Hart, D.B., 2013. The Experience of God: Being, consciousness, bliss. Yale University Press.
- Hawking, S., 2011. The Grand Design. Random House Digital, Inc.
- Necessary Existence.Alexander R. Pruss and Joshua L. Rasmussen 2018
- Occasionalism Revisited: New Essays from the Islamic and Western Philosophical Traditions Nazif Muhtaroglu. 2017.
About the Author: Anas Malik is a biochemistry graduate currently pursuing his Master’s in Neuroscience. He also studies Maliki jurisprudence and Arabic part time. His interests include science, religion, and the philosophy of mind.
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