Picking Fleas

don’t know how many people, if any, have ‘converted’ to atheism after reading Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’ but what if more and more apparent is that if his book, and other similar tracts, have achieved anything its that they neatly exposed the intellectual vacuum that is ‘theology’ and shown it up for what it is, an academic fraud.

There is, on Dawkin’s own site, an absolutely delightful example of this reproduced at Dawkins’ own website, an essay written by Dr. Graham Tomlin, Dean of St Mellitus College, London for publication in yet another acre of screed designed to ‘challenge’ Dawkins, in this case a book entitled ‘Is God a Delusion?’, complied by Nick Gumbel.

What makes this essay such a delight is not just that it, as with other attempts to ‘debunk’ Dawkins, is badly thought out, wooly-minded and intellectually dishonest to the core, its that its actually hilariously bad, riddled with contradictions, inconsistencies and spurious reasoning to the point of insensibility. ITime precludes fisking the whole essay but there are a few highlights (or rather lowlights) that are worth flagging up.

Tomlin kicks things off by tackling the question of the lack of tangible evidence for the existence of god:

One of Dawkins’ key arguments is very simple: that there is simply no compelling evidence for the existence of God, especially when it comes to analysing God’s supposed intervention in the world.

If God answers prayer, performs miracles and the like, then we ought to be able tell that he is doing such a thing – there simply should be more obvious evidence for him.

Yep, that’s about the size of the argument, so how does Tomlin respond to that? Well it seems that he’s not too keen on the whole ‘God of the Gaps’ thing…

However, Dawkins is by his own admission no theologian, and does not really appreciate a Christian view of miracles. It is bad theology as well as bad science to imagine a ‘God of the gaps’ where God is invoked to explain anything that science cannot.

Ah, so Dawkins is no theologian and, therefore, doesn’t understand or appreciate how Christian’s view miracles, which is…?

On a Christian understanding, miracles are not random interventions of God, like a secret visitor moving chess pieces on a board while the players are not looking.

They are instead actions that seem to obey a different set of laws, or operate in another dimension of reality that is not specifically accessible to scientific analysis or study, and which shows up in odd events in our own world. They will always therefore seem odd, inexplicable and disputable.


So the God of the Gaps argument is bad theology but anything that appears to be supernatural and inexplicable by science – as it stands at the time of the event – is evidence for god’s existence, even though that places such events firmly in the gaps in between our current level of scientific knowledge.

So, to sum up, the ‘God of the Gaps’ argument is bad theology but the evidence for gods existence is to be found in the gaps in scientific knowledge that he/she/it is not supposed to be the god of, if you’re a good theologian.

And that’s not all, because Tomlin then goes on to argue:

God usually achieves his purposes indirectly, through human agency. Particular people in the Bible or Christian history are normally the agents of miracles, whether Moses parting of the Red Sea, Jesus raising the dead, or Christian saints performing healings. Christian theology says that God is both beyond this world (transcendent) and yet also operates within this world (immanent).

Errmm… but we’ve got no actual corroborative evidence for the existence of either Moses or Jesus, let alone any evidence to show that the ‘miracles’ attributed to them actually took place and, anyway, is it not the case that archaelogists are pretty much agreed that ‘Red Sea’ is a typo and that what the Israelites actually croos in their migration out of Israel was the ‘Reed Sea’, which is thought to have been a now lost area of marshland.

Likewise, what evidence is there to show that these ‘healing’ are a) real and b) not attributable to natural causes.

There are numerous well documented cases of spontaneous remission in which there was no ‘spiritual intervention’ by any member of the priestly cast, there’s the placebo effect and there’s the issue of psychosomatic illnesses, all of which provide alternative explanations for so-called ‘healings’ not to mention that the sole occasion on which ‘faith healing’ was put to the test under scientific conditions, a study of the efficacy of intercessory prayer carried out by the Templeton Foundation, found it had no measurable effect.

Tomlin’s entire argument is founded on a post hoc fallacy, and nothing more, yet he goes on to try to argue this point as if it were almost a scientific hypothesis.

If God is the creator of this physical world and yet occasionally acts within it, through ordinary (or perhaps extraordinary) people, according to a different order of things, then we would expect to see occasional events and experiences within our world which are hard to explain under natural terms.

And if god does not exist but our understanding of the natural world is somewhat incomplete in places then we would expect to see occasional events and experiences within our world which are hard to explain under natural terms – the difference between a scientist and a theologian is simply that the scientist find something he cannot explain and investigates it to find an explanation, the theologian just say ‘Ah, that must be god’ and buggers off to do something else.

One route leads, eventually, to greater understanding of the natural world, one leaves you in ignorance.

Tomlin’s next stab at Dawkins is to take on his chapter which details and exposes the flaws in Christian arguments for the existence of god and, as before, it doesn’t take Tomlin long to deploy the argumentum ad verecundiam (appeal to/from authority) fallacy.

Dawkins spends quite some time looking at the various arguments that have been used for the existence of God and trying to show that they simply do not work.

He makes a decent fist of the point: however it is hamstrung by his lack of knowledge of the subtleties of Christian theology. This is one of the frustrating aspects of the book.

I’m sure he does find Dawkins’ disdain for the ‘subtleties of Christian theology’ frustrating, in fact that’s been one of the most common complaints about Dawkins’ book, ‘Its not fair, he won’t play by rules’, even though there is no sense in which that negates Dawkins’ arguments.

And so we get arguments like this:

For example, Dawkins tries to present some of the classic arguments for the existence of God, such as Thomas Aquinas’ proofs, as supposed knock-down arguments to convince the sceptic that God exists.

However: as many theologians have pointed out, Aquinas’ arguments for the existence of God, such as the Ontological Argument, the Teleological Argument and the Argument from Design, were never meant to be hard and fast proofs to the non-believer to convince them that God exists.

Aquinas presents them (as do most other mainstream Christian theologians) as confirmations of faith rather than proofs of it.

In other words, for those who have a belief in God, they provide a rationale for showing how that belief makes sense.

But a belief in god only, ultimately, ‘makes sense’ if what you believe in exists – you can have all the rationales you like but without the actual existence of god, you’ll still only believing in a figment of someone else’s imagination, which puts believing in god on par with believing in the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, Unicorns, Dragons and who the hell knows what else.

Tomlin also tackles Dawkins over his debunking of the argument from personal experience

Dawkins delights in pointing out all kinds of examples of supposed religious experiences that have turned out to have completely naturalistic explanation. Of course, it is possible to do this time and time again.

However, it is still very hard to argue away the whole of religious experience from human history along these lines. Experience of the divine or a dimension beyond the physical is pervasive in just about ever culture that has ever lived on the face of the planet.


It’s not at all hard to offer naturalistic accounts of so-called ‘religious experience’ either individually or collectively. We can look to social anthropology, sociology, psychology, etc. The rapidly developing area of meme theory offers a naturalistic, Darwinian, account of the ‘lifecycle’ of ideas which can readily account the for the pervasive nature of ‘religious’ experience, indeed the very notion that a particular kind of experience is somehow ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ is only, itself, an idea.

What Tomlin has here is arguments for the existence of ‘faith’ and of experiences that some interpret as being religious or spiritual in character but not an argument for the existence of god – such experiences could be, and in Dawkins’ opinion are, entirely delusory and lacking in any basis in fact.


Dawkins argues that natural selection explains everything we can see around us and therefore there is no need for God.

The main point of Dawkins’ argument is that the existence of complex beings such as ourselves can be perfectly explained by the process of natural selection and there is really no need for supposing any kind of God as part of the process.

Oh goody – we’re up for the argument from doesn’t understand evolution next, lets see what Tomlin’s got…

Dawkins may well be right in arguing that natural selection does provide a good explanation of how we have developed from very simple organisms, how life emerged, and how the world has come to be what it is today.

However, there remain a number of questions. For example, several philosophers have pointed out that it is hard to imagine human language appearing through a simple process of genetic evolution. Evolutionary process would normally expect a new ability to have appeared one individual first: however, it is impossible for language to be individual – it has to involve at least two people who converse together.

Oh yes… it’s irreducible complexity time.

Look, its only hard to imagine human language evolving through natural selection if you’ve got no imagine and think that humans went straight from ‘grunt!’ to ‘hello, how are you’ without any intervening steps. On the other hand, once you understand that evolution is a natural algorithm, a cumulative process of piling minor adaptations and variations on the foundations built by earlier adaptations and variations, with natural selection winnowing out the less successful adaptations, then understanding how the human capacity for spoken language could have evolved is a piece of cake.

Tomlin presupposes that the capacity for language emerged in a single generation and proved to be immediately useful in survival terms, but that need not be the case – the key genetic and phenotypic elements necessary for using and processing language may have evolved for entirely other reasons only then to be adapt for use in processing language later on, or they may have evolved long before their came to be used for communication and were passed on to successive generations not because they served any useful survival purpose in themselves but because those carrying the necessary genes were well suited for survival because they possess other useful traits, ones entirely unrelated to their eventual capacity for processing language.

all Tomlin tells us here is that he doesn’t understand evolution, but that doesn’t stop him carrying on to point out that…

There is also a further question that Dawkins is simply unable to answer and that is the question of why there is anything here at all. yes, the process may have begun with some very simple elements combining to form life, but why were those elements here in the first place?

The Big Bang is of course one possible solution to this argument, but even that does not provide an answer because it still leaves open the question why there was something to go ‘bang’ in the first place?

Well, its not absolutely certain that anything did go ‘bang’ – in ‘A Brief History of Time’, Stephen Hawking notes that in at least one model of the early universe he’s working on, there is no Big Bang singularity and therefore no point at which the universe could be said to have been ‘created’ – and if there’s no creation, there’s no god.

That’s one possibility that some cosmologists have been looking at, and there are numerous others under investigations as well, which is why we build things like the Large Hadron Collider – so we can find outa bit more and refine our understanding of the natural forces of the universe.

Again, Tomlin’s only argument is ‘you can’t answer this question, therefore god’, ignoring all the logical problems that emerge when you postulate such a hypothesis, which Dawkins explores in his book – not that Tomlin seems to notice as he’s evidently picking and choosing his points carefully and only addressing those where he thinks he’s got an answer while ignoring the ones that he can’t find a way round, like the infinite regress problem – if god created the universe, then who created god?

What about morality? Again Tomlin thinks he’s got Dawkins stumped…

Dawkins realises that he also has to come up with some explanation for the origins of morality and goodness if he is to complete his case against religious beliefs.

…He argues that there are Darwinian reasons for people to be generous or kind towards each other; for example, favouring the fortunes of one’s own kin, reciprocity where ‘if you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours’, the benefits of gaining a reputation for generosity and so on.

However, this does not get away from the basic implication here that all our behaviour is ultimately selfish. In ensures the survival of genes and our own selves.

Even altruistic behaviour is only altruistic on the surface; underneath it is a thinly disguised means of personal or genetic survival. There are a number of significant problems with this approach.

As should be apparent by now, Tomlin’s about to go off one despite his being unable to understand how one gets from ‘selfish’ genes to altruistic behaviour, so you can be sure that the next bit will be something of a train wreck of an argument…

As we saw in the last point (where he tried to rubbish meme theory and failed), again there is a real problem of evidence.

How are we to take seriously an argument that has as little evidential basis as this?

Tomlin obviously hasn’t read Hauser’s ‘Moral Minds’ – if he had he would have realised that although we’re only at the early stages of studying the biological foundations of morality, there is a growing body of evidence in the field which is starting to unpick the foundations and operational parameters of our evolved moral ‘sense’.

What Tomlin fails to understand, not least because he obviously doesn’t ‘get’ mem theory either, is that biology (i.e. evolution) only provides use with a base strata for making moral choices, a generic mechanism for processing moral decisions the exact parameters of which are set up by the influence of the culture and society into which we are born and in which we grow up.

To give a very simple overview of Hauser’s arguments, or innate system for processing moral choices operates as a ‘black box’ which takes and process sensory input in a manner of which we are not conciously aware and then spits out one of three answers – something is either morally obligatory, permissible or forbidden. So far as exactly what actions are assigned to each of these categories, that we get from our evironment and from the culture and society into which we are born. However, that ‘answer’ is only a base level output – its not a complete answer in itself, rather it serves as a trigger for emotional and intellectual responses to the stimulus which we then have to interpret as particular moral choice or decision.

So, if we imagine a scenario in which some hands us a plate with steak on it and then tells us its human flesh but we ought to try it, then the fact that we live in culture in which there is an overriding moral aversion to cannibalism has ‘programmed’ our moral sense to interpret the sensory input from that scenario as being morally impermissible and react accordingly. It spits out its ‘opinion’ which triggers, first, an emotional response (anger, revulsion) which we then interpret/rationalise intellectually in terms of the individual who handed us the plate having committed a morally impermissible act (and also that it would be morally impermissible to take up their offer).

Play out the same scenario in a culture where cannibalism is the social norm, and the moral sense would respond with the answer ‘morally permissible’ which would trigger the relevant emotional and intellectual response and the person handed the plate would simply ask if there’s any ketchup to go with dinner.

Its the same moral sense in both scenarios, but it arrives at different answers because its been set with different cultural parameters – and that’s the moral faculty that evolution has equipped us with, which is very different from the flight of fancy into which Tomlin launches himself…

Christian faith is not so much about telling us what is right and wrong as about enabling us to do what it is right and to avoid what is wrong.

It describes how God’s own power, the Holy Spirit, can enter a human life to give that life a new dimension of energy and purpose to do what is right and to live a good life, to live according to the Kingdom of God. Criticising Christian morality for not offering a distinct list of do’s and don’t that cannot be found elsewhere is simply to miss the point.

Has this guy even read ‘The God Delusion’? Talk about burning straw men…

Dawkins argument vis-a-vis morality is not that Christianity fails to supply a tidy list of do’s and dont’s but that our evolved moral sense is not dependent on Christianity, or any other religion. The question he adresses is that of whether we can moral without the need for the belief that a big old sky fairy is looking over our shoulders every waking second of the day – he thinks we can and so have many other eminent philosophers, not least amongst whom were both Hume and Kant.

As such, the point about the seeming ubiquity of certain moral principles, particularly the universality of the ‘Golden Rule’, is that this is evidence that the foundations of the ethic of reciprocity are to be found in our evolution as a species and not in the maundering of the priestly caste of any individual religion or even religion. collectively. Within social animals, of which we are but one of many, reciprocation and reciprocal altruism confers certain survival advantages over and above pure self-interest – natural selection favours those who cooperate -within certain limits – to ensure the survival of their genes to future generations, which makes the Golden Rule no more than an intellectual codification of an evolutionary principle and its ubiquity across human societies nothing more than a function of the fact that we all belong to the same species and, if you go back far enough, share common origins and ancestors.

As a species we were moral before we’d even conceived of concept of god, less alone of the Christian god whose history spans a mere few thousand years.

What theologians, like Tomlin and other, don’t seem to understand or, more to the point, don’t want to understand, is once you fully understand the explanatory force and power of Darwinian ideas, you go beyond mere disbelief in the existence of god and reach a point where the very concept of god becomes entirely meaningless and wholly irrelevant, much as, when children grow up, these cease to have any need for relatively harmless fictions like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

That’s what atheism is – growing up and becoming a fully autonomous, independent human being capable of making their own moral choices and the own decisions about what is right and what is wrong with out recourse to fairy tales, bogeymen or sky fairies.

Ultimately, what has got some religionists so rattled about Dawkins and the so-called ‘New Atheists’ is not that they challenge the existence of god – that is ultimately an intellectual debate – but that he and others are implicitly, and in some cases, explicitly, challenging the privileged position and status of religion as an institution and socio-political entity.

Its not god, or the belief on god that Tomlin and others are trying to protect when they’re attacking Dawkins, its their hallowed place on the secular public teat on which religion has been suckling and has grown fat for centuries.

What Dawkins’ is threatening here is the automatic seats in the UKs House of Lords given to the Church of England, the state funding for faith schools and the mandatory requirements placed on all state schools, even secular ones, to provide acts of ‘broadly Christian’ worship and religious education. It’s the undue and undeserved claim to deference that religion demands under the guide of ‘respect’ and the legislative cop-outs they demand in order to defend their presume ‘right’ to discriminate and promulgate bigotry and homophobia.

In 1780, Benjamin Franklin wrote, in a private letter, of religion…

When a religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and, when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support, so that its professors are obliged to call for the help of the civil power, it is a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.

Which seems to nicely sum up the present situation.

Attacking Dawkins and so-called ‘militant’ atheism have nothing whatsoever to do with god and everything to do with clinging on to the help of ‘civil powers’ and the privileges that accrue from it – if god exists and is capable of creating the universe that what need does he/she/it have for the platitudinous sophistries of theologians – surely he/she it is big enough to look after their own interest, if not entirely beyond the interests and concerns of us mere mortals.

Theology is, as I say, an intellectual and academic fraud, one that exists solely for the purpose of providing spurious rationales for unnecessary belief in supernaturalism and protecting those beliefs from rational, sceptical inquiry, as Tomlin nicely proves is his essay.

Further Reading: Can I just recommend Paula Kirby’s lengthy (even by my standards) but worthwhile review of four other ‘responses’ to ‘The God Delusion’ each of which is no more convincing that Tomlin’s.

12 thoughts on “Picking Fleas

  1. Dawkins didn’t turn me into an atheist, as I was already one, & an opponent of fundamentalism before encountering him.

    What he did was solidify my argument & convince me of the need to stand up for secularism against even “moderate” believers, whose acceptance is the breeding ground for fundamentalists.

    People say “moderates” innoculate people against religion, but their acceptance of irrationalism makes it possible for certain types to push the Bible, Koran etc. to its logical conclusion. How would you expect people to behave if they actually thought Revelation was true?

    I recall your one-word description of “Intelligent Design” as “bullshit”. I’d have opted for dishonest. They are basically Lysenkoists who think their preconceptions come before the facts & will distort any “evidence” to fit what they want to believe. They are also intellectually lazy & their “argument from incredulity” is just filthy. I summarise it as: we don’t understand how this could have evolved & can’t be arsed to find out, so we’ll just say God.

    This mentality has informed the Bush administration: McCain seems less infected by it, but is shameless enough to pander to it (as witness Palin, whom despite fancying the fuck out of I’m still able to recognise as someone who spits in the face of reason, science & intellectual curiosity & free, unbiased enquiry).

    In policy terms I would deny any state funding to “faith” schools, scrap these repulsive “religious hatred” laws, disestablish the church, & generally stop showing undue “respect” to people who make unfounded claims & expect the rest of society to kowtow to them without having any valid reason.

    You can thank Dawkins for instilling these attitudes in me & for convincing me that the naturalistic worldview explains the world & is enough to satify anyone mentally & spiritually. Though some consider him to be hectoring, I recognise his actions as inspired by love of science & justified anger at those obscurantists who put politics first & would blind others, especially impressionable children, to what is indeed a wonderful world.

  2. I might add:

    I certainly recommend all of Dawkins’ work. I re-read them every few months & did so about 2-4 weeks ago.

    I couldn’t get all the way through Tomlin’s article, & the reason for this is one that Dawkins identified, that theology isn’t a serious subject, & whatever shite they come out with shouldn’t be assessed on the same grounds as biochemistry & what have you. I wouldn’t read an article by an astrologer or some postmodernist fuckwit because there is no concise use of language, no terms of reference, no regard for free enquiry again.

    I also strongly dislike relativism, & think liberals should take a solid stance against it & for secularism.

  3. “How are we to take seriously an argument that has as little evidential basis as this?”

    Is there an International Irony Awards ceremony to which this can be submitted?

  4. As soon as one reads any serious philosophy, one appreciates how poor the God Delusion, and indeed virtually everything Richard Dawkins says on the subject, is.

    Let’s get a few things clear first – i’m somewhere between agnosticism and atheism on this, and of course i think the God of fundamentalists is an absurd one, but in terms of engaging with the ideas that represent the most sophisticated, intelligent theology, Dawkins fails to do so in a way that is pretty appalling.

    For someone who makes so much of the fact that faith supposedly closes off avenues thought and discourages rational inquiry, Dawkins does an excellent job of declaring the case closed on God’s existence, and of encouraging his readers to think that the debate doesn’t really get more sophisticated than him or his arguments. Indeed, the self-righteous, self-superior attitudes i find to be one of the most loathesome characteristics of fundamentalist religious believers are found dripping from every page of the God Delusion.

    The truth is summed up quite well by Terry Eagleton on The God Delusion:

    “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don

  5. “Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite them, and little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum”

    I’m afraid I think Christians are as easily persuaded that Dawkins’ arguments are full of holes as atheists think Christians’ arguments are. That suggests that there is no real meeting of minds going on, but rather that we are thinking in entirely different frameworks which happily ignore the bits that don’t fit our framework comfortably, while spotting the vast magnitude of the bits that don’t fit our opponents’ framework comfortably. I think that comment applies fairly equally to both, and that there are representatives of both who engage better than others.

    I think there’s a serious conversation to be had here. I’m just not sure there’s anyone who wants to have it. It’s a lot easier to score points, and it’s far more fun.

  6. I am interested in the serious conversation. I don’t want religion to have a “privileged position and status as an institution and socio-political entity.” But I am a Christian. I do believe in God. I’m even an evangelical.

    I wish Dawkins was threatening the automatic seats in the UKs House of Lords given to the Church of England, the state funding for faith schools and the mandatory requirements placed on all state schools, even secular ones, to provide acts of

  7. I believe in God. I do not believe in the existence of God.

    To Dawkins that makes me a sufferer from the God delusion; to an academic theologian it would make me an atheist. To some readers of this blog it may well seem that I don’t know how to use the English language.

    That isn’t so (well, not on this evidence): there is a long tradition (somewhat clandestine in the West, more overt in the East) of refusing to use language in the same way when talking of God (The Ultimate, Brahman etc) as it is used in referring to anything else. Buckminster Fuller stood foursquare in this tradition – and Tim F is alluding to it in his post – when he said “God is a verb”.

    Atheists (in the Dawkinsian sense) simply cannot engage with this line of thought. The things they say about God are true of the small God about which they are talking.

    This is a true story. Charlotte was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and given a poor prognosis. She chose to follow a spiritual r

  8. @Sim-O

    Sim-O’s comment is silly. It’s exactly that kind of comment which stops believers and atheists from having serious discussions.

    The blanket statement that “believers do not look into the existence of God” is ridiculous. Sim-O appears to be saying that no believer has ever challenged their belief without jettisoning it.

  9. You know what really pisses me off about Dawkins? That he sounds like the Torquemada of atheism.
    I’m up to here with these new crusading fundamentalisms, blast them all.
    Besides, just like religious people, atheists do “believe” in something, namely, that god doesn’t exist. But as to KNOWING, neither actually know shit.
    Like Innocent Abroad, I wish they would all shut up.

  10. Theology can only be regarded as a form of literary criticism, since its relies entirely on a book for its subject matter. That book is a fiction, written by humans. Hence the study of it is an analysis of fiction

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