Richard Dawkins: science, non-science, nonsense.

Richard H. Thornhill


Existence of God; theism; atheism; materialism; Argument from Design; evolution; Darwinism.


Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most influential living 'rationalist', claims that his materialism is a result of his knowledge of evolutionary biology. However, his writings appear to contain only three rational arguments against theism. His key argument, based on refutation of the biological version of the Argument from Design, is very weak. His argument based on Occam's razor is both invalid and unconnected to science. That based on the suffering of animals is weak and of doubtful connection to science.


Richard Dawkins is perhaps the world's most ardent defender of Darwinist orthodoxy, and is militantly opposed to all non-materialist beliefs. He claims that his materialism is a result of his knowledge of evolutionary biology (1998b), and goes so far as to say that he would not have been an atheist before the publication of the Origin of Species in 1859 (1986, pp. 5-6), and would have agreed with William Paley's Natural Theology (1802) rather than David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779). The claim that science has succeeded where philosophy failed is prevalent among the current crop of reductionist materialists. It is not always based on evolution, however, but sometimes, as in the case of Daniel Dennett, on 'artificial intelligence' (1995, p. 27). It is eerily reminiscent of the tendency of the most bigoted of Christian theologians to either dismiss pre-Christian thought, like Tertullian (c. 200), or to treat it as a freak-show of human error, like John Calvin (1541, book 1).

Dawkins' claim that his opinions are based on science is crucial, as science has more popular prestige than philosophy or theology, and it is his position as an eminent scientist rather than an amateur philosopher that has afforded him such wide publicity. The main aim of this review is to investigate whether Dawkins' arguments for materialism are philosophical or scientific. A secondary aim is to examine the strength of these arguments. Dawkins' strong emotional motives for materialism (1993) are beyond the scope of this review.

To avoid misunderstanding, it is necessary to be clear that the following propositions are not assumed, defended or discussed here: God exists; the existence of God is rationally demonstrable; science is the only (or a) valid way to truth; all (or any) biological complexity originated by Darwinian evolution. Furthermore, my opinions about these issues are irrelevant to this review.


Dawkins' central argument against theism, repeated in numerous publications, is that evolution provides an explanation for the origin of biological complexity by non-design (ie. unconscious) processes, at least above the level of DNA, and that this has nullified the biological version of the Argument from Design. One may object that this argument is unconnected to science, as the non-design origin of biological complexity was hypothesised long before palaeontology started, in the late 18th century, to provide significant quantities of data interpretable as evidence for evolution (Lucretius, 54 BC, book 5, vv. 783-924; Diderot, 1749, pp. 121-122). However, Dawkins argues that the crucial importance of Darwin, or perhaps the Darwinian-Mendelian synthesis of the 1940s, is to have provided the mechanism of non-design origin, rather than merely the hypothesis that it occurred (1998c).

The most popular objection to Dawkins' argument is that biological complexity is not actually explicable by Darwinian evolution (Behe, 1996). This claim is probably invalid (Fulton, 1997; Ussery, 1998), which is of course only to say that biological complexity could have originated by Darwinian evolution. However, leaving this objection aside, there are two reasons why Dawkins' argument offers only a very weak case against theism.

Firstly, Dawkins' argument is a criticism solely of the biological version of the Argument from Design. Contrary to Dawkins' opinion (1998b), this has not often been the most important intellectual justification for theism, and it was rarely even formulated before the 18th century. Furthermore, there is no evidence that even the general (cosmological) Argument from Design, the fifth proof of Thomas Aquinas (1273, part 1, Q. 2, art. 3), was "always the most influential of the arguments for the existence of a God" (Dawkins, 1986, p. 4). That theism does not depend on the Argument from Design is illustrated by the fact that most mediaeval Hindu theistic philosophers accepted the infinite age of the world (Sharma, 1961). The traditional Christian, Jewish and Muslim doctrine is, admittedly, that the world is of finite age, but most theologians have accepted this solely as a revealed historical 'fact', entirely distinct from the doctrine of creation. Finite age has not usually been considered necessary, which is to say that God could have created differently (and perhaps does/did so in other space-time continua), whereas creation, occurring equally at all points in time, is a fundamental doctrine of theism (Aquinas, 1273, part 1, Q. 46, art. 1-2).

Secondly, even if the non-design origin of biological complexity had never been hypothesised, the Argument from Design would offer only a very weak case for theism, and it is scarcely weakened by Dawkins' argument. The biological Argument from Design has two components. The first component (pedantically, the Argument to Design) is that the complexity of organisms shows that they were consciously designed. There are two possible objections to this component, both raised by Philo, Hume's presumed mouthpiece in the Dialogues. The first is that organisms may have always existed. The second is that they may have arisen by non-design processes. Philo's defence of the possible infinite age of the world was quite convincing (1779, parts 6, 8), whereas his hypothesis of the possible non-design origin of biological complexity was decidedly lacklustre (1779, part 8). Dawkins would therefore be able to argue that Darwin provided the first sound criticism of the first component of the biological Argument from Design, given the assumption of the finite age of the world. This would be supported by the fact that, despite his criticisms, Philo tentatively accepted the first component of the Argument from Design (1779, part 12), and most of the Dialogues is concerned with criticising its second component, which is that the designer must have been God. Philo argued that there are numerous hypothetical conscious designers besides God, and that theism therefore cannot be deduced in this way (1779, parts 3-7). The likely position of a pre-Darwinian sub-Hume atheist would therefore not be, as Dawkins states, "I have no explanation for complex [apparent] biological design. All I know is that God isn't a good explanation" (Dawkins, 1986, p. 6), but something more like "It is probable that complex biological design is actual as well as apparent. I have, however, no reason to suppose that the designer resembles the Christian God". Philo's objection to the second component was highly unoriginal, indeed older than Judaism, as it had been used by polytheists and Zoroastrians.

The valid pre-Darwinian biological Argument from Design, then, was; "Assuming the finite age of the world, biological complexity demonstrates the present or past existence of nonhuman intelligence". One could argue that this, although far weaker than Paley's Biological complexity demonstrates the existence of God", was still philosophically interesting, and that this is where Darwinism's significance lies. However, there would be no grounds for assuming the nonhuman intelligence to be extracosmic, and the Argument therefore presents no case against materialism. Furthermore, Dawkins 'proves' that any organisms in the universe must have originated by Darwinian evolution (1986, pp. 288-318), which means that acceptance of the Argument would be fully compatible with Darwinism. This is spelled out by Dennett, in his claim that proof of biological design would constitute evidence for the involvement of extraterrestrials in the earth's biological history (1995, pp. 318-319). It is difficult to imagine a clearer statement that the biological Argument from Design is irrelevant to theism, but, rather bizarrely, Dennett's book was reviewed glowingly by Dawkins. Francis Crick has gone further, and argued that extraterrestrial involvement in evolution has actually occurred (1981).

To summarise, theists' claims that biological complexity cannot have originated by Darwinian evolution, although interesting, rather miss the point, which is that the Argument from Design, and especially its biological version, is a red herring. On the one hand, theism has usually existed without the biological Argument from Design, and sometimes without its logical possibility. On the other hand, the validity of this Argument would be perfectly compatible with Darwinist materialism. One wonders whether the pre-Darwinian intellectual importance of this Argument is a figment of the Darwinist materialist imagination.


The origin of DNA is less readily explicable by Darwinian evolution than that of higher levels of biological complexity. Dawkins makes the following comment:

Dennett, a professional philosopher, is most impressed by this passage (1995, p. 153), yet it is not clear exactly what Dawkins' argument is. He could be arguing against people who believe in God for other reasons suggesting him as the proximate cause of macromolecular complexity. On the other hand, he could be arguing against the use of the apparent absence of a non-design explanation for DNA to support the Argument from Design. If his argument is of the former type, it depends on the a priori assumption of the untruth of theism, and is therefore unworthy of consideration. If his argument is of the latter type, it has no connection with science, as it could have been formulated at any time in history, and was, indeed, formulated before Darwin by Denis Diderot (1749, pp. 119-120), Hume (1779, part 4) and James Mill (Mill, 1873), among others. Dawkins' argument could be used against the Argument from Design based on any, or every, case of biological complexity, and Dawkins' willingness to resort to it therefore betrays the fact that evolution is peripheral to his atheism. However, this is rather irrelevant, as there are two reasons why, supposing one were to agree with Dawkins that the biological Argument from Design is worth criticising, Dawkins' criticism would be invalid.

Firstly, one is not free to say that DNA "was always there", because there are well-known logical and mathematical difficulties with infinite regresses, and also because rejecting the Big Bang would take one almost as far from the current scientific mainstream as accepting the Noachian Flood. Hume was intellectually honest in defending the possibility of the infinite age of the earth (1779, part 6, 8), but Dawkins appears less so in suggesting an alternative which has been almost completely untenable since the 1960s. It is worth noting that it is science which is responsible for the weakness of his position.

Secondly, it is not the case that one "might as well" say that DNA was always there as that God was. Theists believe that God is outside time, in which case explanation by reference to God is not an extension of, but a release from, the regress, or at least a shift from a chronological to an ontological basis. The two propositions are therefore qualitatively different, being that DNA has infinite age, but that God is without age (ie. eternal). Dawkins is of course free to deny the validity of the concept of eternity, but that would be to beg the question of the untruth of theism.

To summarise, Dawkins' vaunted argument is invalid, for two independent reasons, and the Argument which it criticises is in any case weak and irrelevant. Furthermore, Dawkins' argument is unconnected to science, and his willingness to resort to it therefore underlines the superfluity of his argument based on refutation of the Argument from Design.

Finally, although not strictly relevant, it is worth emphasising that the problem, the origin of DNA, for which Dawkins considers theists to propose a "transparently feeble" and "obviously self-defeating" (1986, p. 141) solution, is, despite recent advances (Gesteland and Atkins, 1993; Unrau and Bartel, 1998), definitely non-trivial (Mills and Kenyon, 1996).


The ichneumon wasp paralyses caterpillars and lays eggs in them, enabling its larvae to eat them alive. Dawkins quotes Darwin to the effect that this organism cannot have been designed by a benevolent creator (1995, p. 111). He continues as follows:

Now, the problem of evil presents probably the greatest intellectual and emotional challenge to theism. However, it has no connection with science, and arguments based on it are older than Christianity (Psalms 42:3; Lucretius, 54 BC, book 2, vv. 167-183; book 5, vv. 195-234).

Furthermore, Dawkins' argument is based not on the general problem of evil, but specifically on the suffering of (nonhuman) animals. Animal suffering is usually considered less important than human suffering. This is of course partly due to species-ism, and partly on the arguably spurious grounds that their low intelligence makes animals, and their suffering, less important. However, there is also the sounder basis that animals, with less consciousness of the past and future, and less empathy, probably suffer less from the emotional and intellectual components of pain than humans. Furthermore, invertebrates have less complex nervous systems, and therefore probably suffer less from even momentary physical pain. It is therefore, at first glance, difficult to see how a case against theism based on animal suffering could be other than weaker than one based on the general problem of evil. It would therefore be excusable to dismiss this argument as symptomatic of Dawkins' tendency to deny that humans are more important than animals (1986, pp. 104-105, 114, 262-263).

There is one way, however, in which it is possible to argue that animal suffering presents a stronger intellectual difficulty to theism than the general problem of evil. Moreover, this argument can be construed as depending upon the findings of science. There is no evidence that this argument would actually be formulated by Dawkins, but it is the only rational one which can be based on his comments about the suffering of animals, and to discuss it is therefore to place his writings in the best possible light. It is outlined in the following paragraph.

The most common Christian theodicy is that rational creatures have free will, and that an unavoidable concomitant of this is that they have the possibility of suffering the results of their own and others' sins. There are serious, and much discussed, difficulties with this theodicy, even for human suffering, but the point here is that animals, with the arguable exceptions of whales and anthropoid apes, are not moral actors, and their suffering therefore seems to be without justification. For the free will theodicy to be valid (assuming it is not invalid per se), the capacities to suffer and to make moral choices would have to be coextensive. This difficulty with the free will theodicy has historically not been given great prominence. However, it has always been present, and, for example, a 17th century Roman Catholic priest, Jean Meslier, became an atheist through contemplating animal suffering (Dommanget, 1965). One could therefore maintain that the argument based on animal suffering, although stronger than it appears at first glance, is unconnected to science. However, it has been widely held by Jews and Christians that carnivory and parasitism, and thus animal suffering, began as a result of human sin, and it is arguable that it is the findings of geology and palaeontology since the late 18th century which have led to the rejection of this belief. The primary biblical basis for belief in universal herbivory at creation is an argument from silence, as God is stated to have given the animals "all green plants" to eat at creation (Genesis 1:30), and it is supported by analogy to the conditions in the messianic age, as described by the prophets Isaiah (11:6-9, 65:25) and Hosea (2:18). Similar grounds are given for humans having been herbivorous at creation (Genesis 1:29, 2:16).

As an aside, even if universal herbivory at creation were true, there would be difficulties with using it to support the free will theodicy, as it would involve absolutely rather than relatively innocent creatures suffering as a result of others sins. This aspect of the doctrine has, however, occasionally led to animals being regarded as paradigms of Christ (Thomas, 1983, p. 289, cf. Isaiah 53:7).

The above argument depends on numerous assumptions, none of which have been universally accepted by Jews and Christians:

Whatever one's opinions about the above assumptions, it is unlikely that rejection of universal herbivory at creation would necessitate rejection of theism, as it is only within Judaism and Christianity that this doctrine exists. Muslims believe in Adam's expulsion from paradise (Koran 2:35-36, 7:19-24, 20:120), but not in a cosmic or biospheric Fall, and non-Abrahamic theisms, such as Sikhism and Dvaita Vedanta, have no doctrines of this type. Furthermore, although universal herbivory at creation is currently accepted by most evangelical Protestants (Condron, 1998) and the Jehovah's Witnesses (Kingdom Hall, 1998), its biblical basis is not overwhelming, and it is not clear how widely it was accepted by Bible-believing theists even before the advent of palaeontology. The Talmud states that humans were herbivorous until after the Flood (Sanhedrin 59b), but does not mention the diet of animals, and later Torah scholars take the same line (Schwartz, 1988). Within Christianity, extreme doctrines about the Fall are often thought of as originating with Augustine, but he only actually wrote that prelapsarian animals were harmless to humans (426, book 14, ch. 11). Aquinas considered that prelapsarian animals were tame with respect to humans, but not with respect to each other (1273, part 1, Q. 96, art. 1, reply obj. 2), although some of the lesser schoolmen disagreed. In the intertestamental pseudepigrapha, it is stated that prelapsarian humans ate only angels' food (Anon.), which suggests the possibility of an entirely different interpretation.

Finally, even were animal suffering to lead one to reject theism, this would not necessitate materialism, as several other religious systems provide at least superficially more coherent explanations. Dawkins rhetorically suggests polytheism and creation by an evil god (1995, p. 123), but does not take these alternatives seriously. An additional option is moral dualism, as in classical Zoroastrianism.


Dawkins rails against the evils caused by religion:

This has certainly always been my strongest emotional objection to theism. However, it is an argument against its utility rather than its truth, and is therefore, strictly speaking, irrelevant. Even if considered relevant, it would be difficult to see how one could test whether religion is responsible for more good or evil, even if one could agree upon the definitions of these terms. The debate about the evils caused by science parallels these points almost exactly, being untestable and concerned with utility rather than truth. The difference is, however, that this argument against religion is older than Christianity (Lucretius, 54 BC, book 1, vv. 80-101).

The emotional weight allowable to this objection to theism ought to depend on the type of atheist making it. Were Dawkins an existentialist or a postmodernist, say, one would sympathise with him more. However, over the past 140 years, Darwinism has been used as the justification for an enormous amount of evil, quite possibly more than Christianity or Islam.


Dawkins is perhaps the most influential living 'rationalist'. However, his writings appear to contain only three rational arguments against theism, all of which are, to put it mildly, weak.

One of Dawkins' antitheistic arguments is unrelated to science, and another is arguably so. Dawkins can therefore be more accurately considered a materialist proselytiser than a science populariser. As such, however, he has several motives for insisting that his arguments are based on evolution. Firstly, science has more prestige than theology or philosophy. Secondly, biology is less intellectually difficult than cosmology, offering the opportunity to pull the wool over the eyes of laypeople without making it impossible to explain the basics. Thirdly, and most importantly, the insistence that arguments are scientific, and therefore modern, enables evasion of acknowledgement that they have been formulated since the days of materialists such as Hsn Tzu, Brihaspati and Democritus. In this context, it is enlightening to compare the arguments in Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker with those in Lucretius' De Rei Naturae; even the quasi-messianic status which Dawkins accords Darwin is parallelled by that which Lucretius accorded Epicurus.

There are other possible evolution-related arguments against theism. For example, one may argue that geology, palaeontology and archaeology have shown that certain sections of the Bible (or the Koran, Bhagavad Gita, etc.) are not literally inerrant, and that the rest of it therefore need not be taken seriously. This is the most popular, and probably the strongest, science-based argument against religion, and it is rather odd that Dawkins nowhere clearly formulates it. One may also argue that gradual evolution is incompatible with the doctrine that only humans have souls. It would be interesting to examine these issues, but this review is restricted to arguments formulated by Dawkins.

This review can of course be read as an oblique defence of theism. Equally, however, it is a presentation of the case for the validity and autonomy of philosophy and the humanities, against the fatuous pretensions of those who state, without irony, that Darwinian evolution was the best idea anyone has ever had (Dennett, 1995, p. 21; Dawkins, 1998c). Perhaps, dare one suggest it?, even postmodernism, if it can be found again beneath the heaps of obloquy (Dawkins, 1998a), might be worth a second glance.


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