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The Dawkins Delusion:” Right on Dawkins, Wrong on Intelligent Design


When my copy of Alister and Joanna Collicut McGrath’s The Dawkins Delusion: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine recently arrived, I was struck by its short length.

I immediately wondered if it was short because Richard Dawkins himself provided scant substance in his The God Delusion to which to respond.

According to the McGraths, my suspicions were correct:

It is, in fact, actually rather difficult to write a response to this book [The God Delusion]–but not because it is well-argued or because it marshals such overwhelming evidence in its favor. The book is often little more than an aggregation of convenient factoids suitably overstated to achieve maximum impact and loosely arranged to suggest that they constitute an argument. To rebut this highly selective appeal to evidence would be unspeakably tedious and would simply lead to a hopelessly dull book that seemed tetchy and reactive.

(Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicut McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine, pg. 13 (InterVarsity Press, 2007).)

The McGraths’s book exposes many of Dawkins’ fallacious arguments and assumptions in The God Delusion, including Dawkins’ selective presentation of evidence and misuse of various scientific concepts. After a long and well-documented rebuke of Dawkins’ questionable presentation of the teachings of the Bible, the McGraths conclude that The God Delusion “is a work of theater rather than scholarship” (pg. 96-97).

Getting Into the Gaps
One of the highlights of The Dawkins Delusion is the McGraths’s refutation of Dawkins’ favorite “Who designed the designer?” objection. Dawkins claims that God is “more improbable” than any other explanation for our existence because we can’t account for His origin. The McGraths explain why Dawkins’ conclusion is built upon faulty logic:

Dawkins points out the sheer improbability of our existence. Belief in God, he then argues, represents belief in a being whose existence must be even more complex–and therefore more improbable. Yet this leap from the recognition of complexity to the assertion of improbability is highly problematic. Why is something complex improbable? A “theory of everything” may well be more complex than the lesser theories it explains–but what has that to do with its improbability?

But let’s pause for a moment. The one inescapable and highly improbable fact about the world is that we, as reflective human beings, are in fact here. Now it is virtually impossible to quantify how improbable the existence of humanity is. Dawkins himself is clear, especially in Climbing Mount Improbable, that it is very, very improbable. But we are here. The very fact that we are puzzling about how we came to be here is dependent on the fact that we are here and are thus able to reflect on the likelihood of this actuality. Perhaps we need to appreciate that there are many things that seem improbable–but improbability does not, and never has, entailed nonexistence. We may be highly improbable–yet we are here. The issue, then, is not whether God is probable but whether God is actual.

(Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicut McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine, pgs. 28-29 (InterVarsity Press, 2007), emphases in original.)

This sounds like solid reasoning. Unfortunately, what happens next is…

The McGraths’s Wrong Turn on Intelligent Design
The Dawkins Delusion spends very little time discussing intelligent design so this is a very minor component of their argument overall. However, although I felt most of The Dawkins Delusion was well-reasoned and cogent, in my view the McGraths take a wrong turn when they claim that intelligent design is a “God-of-the-gaps” argument (pgs. 30-31). (As Oxford scholars, they also somewhat pejoratively state ID is “a movement, based primarily in North America” pg. 30.) Much like their fellow theistic evolutionist Francis Collins, the McGraths employ a double standard by inferring design from the intelligible complexity at the level of nature as a whole, but then refusing to apply such logical reasoning to investigate design at the level of biology.

Michael Behe addresses the charge that intelligent design is a “God-of-the-gaps” argument in his recent book, The Edge of Evolution:

If the great majority of cellular protein-protein interactions are beyond the edge of evolution, it is reasonable to view the entire cell itself as a nonrandom, integrated whole–like a well-planned factory, as National Academy of Sciences president Bruce Alberts suggested. This conclusion isn’t a “God-of-the-gaps” argument. Nonrandomness isn’t a rare property of extracomplex features of the cell. Rather, it encompasses the cellular foundation of life as a whole.

(Michael Behe, The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism, pg. 146-147 (Free Press, 2007).)

Behe thus suggests that we infer design when we observe the “nonrandom,” “integrated,” “extracomplex features of the cell” that operate “like a well-planned factory.” It is strange that the McGraths fail to apprehend this argument, yet they praise a similar argument for design by asserting “that the intelligibility of the universe itself needs explanation,” (pg. 31) again stating that it is “the very comprehensibility of scientific and other forms of understanding that requires explanation.” (pg. 31) This is a valid argument for design which uses similar logic to that of Behe: How do we explain the observed complexity in nature? We must invoke a cause that is up to the task of accounting for the observed data.

Rather than inserting “God” into “gaps,” intelligent design invokes intelligence to explain specifically ordered complexity, which in our experience comes only from intelligence. The McGraths apply similar reasoning to infer design at the level of the universe due to its “intelligibility.” Michael Behe simply asks why such a form of reasoning might not be applied at the level of biochemistry.

To be sure, the arguments have differences, but both arguments share a key logical similarity: both arguments invoke the appropriate causes for the observed data. In short, they make an inference to the best explanation. As Stephen C. Meyer and Scott A. Minnich explain, we don’t infer design based upon what we don’t know (i.e., a “gap”), but rather we infer design based upon what we do know:

In all irreducibly complex systems in which the cause of the system is known by experience or observation, intelligent design or engineering played a role the origin of the system. Given that neither standard neo-Darwinism, nor co-option has adequately accounted for the origin of these machines, or the appearance of design that they manifest, one might now consider the design hypothesis as the best explanation for the origin of irreducibly complex systems in living organisms. That we have encountered systems that tax our own capacities as design engineers, justifiably lead us to question whether these systems are the product of undirected, un-purposed, chance and necessity. Indeed, in any other context we would immediately recognize such systems as the product of very intelligent engineering. Although some may argue this is a merely an argument from ignorance, we regard it as an inference to the best explanation, given what we know about the powers of intelligent as opposed to strictly natural or material causes.

(Scott A. Minnich and Stephen C. Meyer, “Genetic analysis of coordinate flagellar and type III regulatory circuits in pathogenic bacteria,” Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Design & Nature, Rhodes Greece, edited by M.W. Collins and C.A. Brebbia (WIT Press, 2004), emphasis added.)

In fact, this method of making an “inference to the best explanation” is actually approved by the McGraths, who on page 35 remind that “[t]he natural sciences depend on inductive inference, which is a matter of ‘weighing evidence and judging probability, not of proof.'”

Ironically, the McGraths then cite to Peter Lipton’s book “Inference to the Best Explanation” as an example of how to do science! Yet this is the precise methodology that ID proponents recommend for historical scientific investigations of origins: ID would suggest, “Let’s not engage in universal ‘Darwinism-of-the-gaps’ reasoning any more than engaging in ‘God-of-the-gaps’ reasoning. Rather, let’s look at the explanatory power of unguided Darwinian causes versus intelligent causes, and infer which represents the best explanation for a given dataset.”

Once the strong positive case for intelligent design is understood, it seems that the “God-of-the-gaps” charge against ID does not stick. Rather, the design inference is made using reasoning that is no less scientific than an inference to Darwinian evolution: both are made based upon an inference to the best explanation based upon, as the McGraths say, “weighing evidence and judging probability.” I enjoyed the rest of this book so much that it’s unfortunate that the McGraths dismiss this “North American movement” much too quickly.

You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide from Darwin’s Universal Acid
The McGraths issued stern warnings to ID proponents against relegating God to the “gaps” and instructed ID to take “an approach which commends and encourages scientific investigation, not seek[ing] to inhibit it” (pg. 31). But the McGraths leave themselves open to the same types of criticisms: Despite the McGraths’s call to let Darwinian science have its way, they put up a strong and lengthy fight against Dawkins’ view that “[n]atural explanations may be given of the origins of belief in God.” (pg. 57) In fact, they devote pages to (quite lucid) critiques of Dawkins’ Darwinian explanations of the origin of religion. Why do they do this?

The McGraths are fully aware of Dawkins’s quest for a “universal Darwinism” (pg. 59) that can explain nearly everything. I believe that Dawkins’ universal acid threatens their sacred gap of the origin of religious belief, so they fight back against such Darwinian explanations with a vengeance. In fact, they conclude their chapter on the origin of religion by explaining that Dawkins is wrong to say “the origins of religion are purely natural,” (pg. 74) and at one point they suggest that “the ultimate cause of religious experience is God.” (pg. 67) Will these conclusions stop evolutionary theorists from trying to explain the origin of religion in “purely natural” Darwinian terms? Of course not. The McGraths will be accused of inhibiting “scientific advance” (pg. 31) and inserting God into the gap of the origin of religion.

If the McGraths wanted to rebut such charges, they would have to recount the many flaws in “purely natural” accounts for the origin of religion. This would require them to offer positive arguments that the origin of religion is precisely the type of gap into which it is proper to insert (at least in an ultimate sense) God. They would now be arguing that, when it comes to explaining the origin of religion, they are merely making an inference to the best explanation.
While ID does not necessarily infer God (ID merely infers intelligence), the McGraths would now be reasoning very much like proponents of intelligent design. To reiterate the words of Meyer and Minnich, “we regard [ID] as an inference to the best explanation, given what we know about the powers of intelligent as opposed to strictly natural or material causes.”

In the end, both ID proponents and the McGraths approve, justifiably, of making inferences to the best explanation. Perhaps the McGraths need to reconsider their opposition to intelligent design on the grounds that it is a “God-of-the-gaps” argument, because ID isn’t a God-of-the-gaps argument and because the McGraths would seemingly approve of the actual reasoning used by ID-proponents.

As I noted above, intelligent design plays a minor role in the McGraths rebuttal to Dawkins. Thus, regardless of these disagreements over ID, The Dawkins Delusion is overall a well-written book that covers an impressive array data from many fields, ranging from history, biology, physics, philosophy, and sociology. It is a must-read for anyone interested in a serious, thoughtful, and well-argued assessment of the present debate over religion and what Wired Magazine called “the New Atheism movement.”


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



Alister McGrath