Someone alerted me last week to the new Richard Dawkins book, Outgrowing God, that was about to drop. So like good little Mama Bear Apologists, Amy Davison and I downloaded the kindle versions on release day so that we could begin talking about it on the podcast. It didn’t take long for my reservations to be on high alert. I’ve read several reviews of other apologists on the book, but with all due respect, I’ll have to disagree with their conclusions. For example, a sweet friend of mine Tom Gilson wrote for the Stream:
It’s a sad display of what can happen when an influential scientist thinks the whole intellectual world exists inside his own head. It’s not just that I disagree with Dawkins’ conclusions. I certainly do; but there’s another problem he ought to care about himself. He makes faith look ridiculous by misrepresenting it, yet without even seemingly knowing that’s what he’s doing. He’s oblivious. Not a good sign for a man of his influence.
This has seemed to be the gist of most of the reviews that I’ve read. But in my opinion, they are dismissing this book for all the wrong reasons. I believe Dawkins knows exactly what he is doing, and here’s why. The going narrative is that @RichardDawkins is oblivious to how bad his scholarship has gotten. I disagree. I think he knows exactly what he is doing. Here's why. #OutgrowingGod Click To Tweet
1. This book is not intended to be a scholarly work
This idea that Dawkins does not know what he’s doing is, I think, underestimating Dawkins’ intent. Scholars around the apologetics blogosphere will rightly denounce it for sloppy scholarship, unsubstantiated generalizations, and all-around bad research. (Just see this one extensively cited tweet-rebuttal by Assyriologist George Heath-Whyte on all of Dawkins’ factual errors regarding Gilgamesh.)
To help you understand what might be going on here, I have a completely unsubstantiated theory that may or may not be correct. But it should get the point across. [Trigger warning: I’m about to talk about Trump.] I was a never-Trumper at the start. However, I must admit, there are a lot of decisions that he has made these past several years that have made me rethink that stance. But I still can’t handle some of his asinine Twitter comments. So here’s a theory that may or may not be true: What if Trump is making these idiotic comments because it gets the media all up in arms and focusing on Twitter comments, while he is actually getting real work done behind the scenes? From all auspices, his Twitter presence is actually what he is thinking. However, if I were to find out one day that he did this on purpose, I’d give him a long, 80’s slow-clap in props for a job well done. Basically, he creates a shiny red dot that the media chases around which allows him to get real stuff done without them noticing. Again, no clue if this is true or not. If it is, mad props. If not… well… Trump is Trump. But just take it for the sake of analogy here.
If I were to compare this to Dawkins, he could very well be completely unconcerned with sloppy scholarship and poor research. And it’s not because he doesn’t know what he’s doing. I may be overestimating what he’s devolved into, but he seems too smart for that. I personally think he knows exactly what he’s doing. The poor scholarship is like Trump’s tweets. It gives something for the naysayers to focus on, all the while ignoring the real impact that is taking place. Like a Dallas atheist that my husband used to debate, he doesn’t care to persuade those “in the know.” His single, solitary goal is to introduce doubt into those who don’t know better. It would seem that Dawkins’ goal is the same. He doesn't care to persuade those 'in the know.' He's already lost them as an audience. His single, solitary goal is to introduce doubt into those who don't know better--kids. @richarddawkins #OutgrowingGod Click To Tweet
2. He is making emotional arguments.
His research is bad because it’s not intended to be actual research. It’s intended to evoke emotion (which it does pretty well, I must say). We discuss Emotionalism in our recent Mama Bear Apologetics book (chapter 10). Emotionalism is basically the exchange of logical reasoning for emotional reasoning as a means for determining truth. It is probably the most popular epistemology in our western culture today (epistemology is the study of how you determine truth). All a person has to do is make vague claims coupled with a lot of emotion, and the whole world pays attention… and then nominates them for a nobel peace prize.
This is the meat of what is going on in Outgrowing God: very effective emotional rhetoric. Dawkins doesn’t make good arguments or fact check his sources because he doesn’t need to. If he can make the reader feel that something is true, the reader is not likely to go do the research to refute his sloppy scholarship. So what are other tactics he is using?
3. He utilizes the steamroller tactic
The steamroller tactic is a way to make it appear that one has won an argument when they haven’t, by presenting so much “evidence” that the listener or reader can’t begin to address it all. In actual scholarship, a person sticks to a few single lines of evidence and then defends them. This makes scholarly rebuttals possible. One can take the shortlist of arguments, find the logical holes, propose an alternate interpretation or theory that utilizes the evidence better, and voila! You’ve got a good scholarly discussion.
A person presented with a bunch of supposed “examples” will feel the weight of the perceived avalanche of “evidence.” Even though these examples are not evidence, the person on the receiving end may interpret them as evidence because the sheer number of examples, which has then turned off their critical thinking. Feeling “overwhelmed” by what seems like a lot of examples shuts down the rational thinking part of the brain and actually triggers the emotional part of the brain (the amygdala). When a person’s amygdala is activated, they have a difficult time thinking things through rationally, which is perfect for someone trying to convince with sloppy scholarship. Why is that? Given enough examples or emotional stories, a person can no longer distinguish between evidence and rhetoric, which masks sloppy scholarship. Who needs it when you've already captured their emotions? #OutgrowingGod @richarddawkins Click To Tweet
4. It is very difficult to fight emotional stories with rational evidence
This is where I think most people underestimate the impact that this book could have if given to young people. The arguments Dawkins makes are just informative enough to sound like evidence and reasoning, without actually being evidence and reasoning. Jesus knew that truths were best conveyed through story (i.e. the parables). Turns out, that’s a pretty good way to embed lies into people’s minds too. Here’s an example from the book describing the sacrifice of Isaac. Picture yourself as a child reading this:
“Imagine that, when you were a child, your father woke you one morning and said, ‘It’s a fine day, how would you like to come with me for a walk in the country?’ You might quite fancy the idea. So off you go for a nice day together. After a while, your father stops to gather wood. He piles it up and you help him because you really enjoy bonfires. But now, when the bonfire is ready to light, something terrible happens. Utterly unexpected. Your father seizes you, throws you on top of the pile of wood and ties you down so you can’t move. You scream with horror. Is he going to roast you on top of the bonfire? It gets worse. your father produces a knife, raises it above his head, and you are now in no doubt. Your father is about to run his knife through you. He’s going to kill you and then set fire to your body: your own father, the father who told you bedtime stories when you were little, told you the names of flowers and birds, your dear father who gave you presents, comforted you when you were afraid of the dark. How could this be happening?
Suddenly he stops. He looks up to the sky with a strange expression on his face, as though carrying on a conversation with himself in his head. He puts away the knife, unties you and tries to explain what has happened, but you are so paraysed with horror and fear that you can scarcely hear his words. Eventually he makes you understand. It was all God’s doing. God had ordered your father to kill you and offer you up as a burnt sacrifice. But it turned out to just be a tease — a test of your father’s loyalty to God. Your father had to prove to God that he loved God so much that he was even prepared to kill you if God ordered him to do so. . . As soon as God saw that your father was really, really, prepared to go through with it, God intervened just in time. Gotcha! April Fool! I didn’t really mean it. Yes, it was a good joke, wasn’t it?” (chapter 4)
There’s not enough theologizing in the world to get that picture out of a kid’s head. And make no mistake, that’s exactly who his intended audience is. His popularity has waned over the years (mainly from making arguments like these to adults) so he’s moved on to a group who are old enough to recognize his name (conferring enough celebrity for them to be interested), but not old enough to know that even his own people (the atheist community) have rejected him and relegated him to the c-list. It’s a little sad when I think about it. He desperately still wants to be relevant. Don’t we all? Jesus knew that truths were best conveyed through story. Turns out, that's a pretty good way to embed lies into people's minds too. #OutgrowingGod Click To Tweet
5. He uses sweeping, matter-of-fact statements that cannot be refuted quickly
People are interested in whether or not a statement is true. It’s just that their capacity to sit through the answer has diminished considerably in our Fortnight, Twitter, Instagram culture. The tactic of saying something casually is that a person is often only willing to listen to a refutation that is as brief and casual as the original claim. When Dawkins throws out a sentence-long claim which would take a dissertation to refute, a person is hardly willing to listen to the dissertation length answer. They move on, but they don’t, however, forget the claim. Instead, these claims start to build up in the head of the listener/reader until they are reinterpreted as evidence. But they are not evidence, they are just unsupported statements. Here’s a few examples from the book (I have the kindle, so anyone with the hardback is welcome to put in the comments the actual page numbers):
“In fact, Adam never actually existed…” (chapter 1)
“We have no more reason to believe [the Old Testament narratives] than we do Homer’s stories about Achilles or Helen. . . The stories of Abraham and Joseph are Hebrew legends, just as Homer’s are Greek legends.” (chapter 2)
“But nobody has the faintest idea who really wrote the gospels. We have no convincing evidence in any of the four cases.” (chapter 2) — I’m sorry, but that’s just patently false.
“It’s a shame people don’t realize it was little more than chance which books got included in the canon and which books were. . . left behind!” (chapter 2) – also false
“[Old Testament] takes us further into the shadowy realms of myth and legend, and biblical scholars don’t take is seriously as history.” (chapter 3) – They don’t? Really?
“As with the stories of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, or King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, there may be some obscure fragments of truth buried in the Pentateuch, but there’s nothing you could call real history.” (chapter 3) — except for all the archeological evidence that keeps verifying historical accounts. You know. Except for that.
Notice how each of these examples are statements that apologists, historians, and theologians have written volumes refuting. But for young people who assume that the author is aware of current scholarship, his dismissive attitude makes it sound like no counterevidence exists. Why would a kid go looking for answers that he/she has been assured don’t exist? They usually won’t. And if they do, they’ll often bore too quickly to fully address the falsity of these statements. Dawkins is purposely introducing doubt with things that have been thoroughly refuted but require too much effort to fully grasp. It’s not that he’s unaware of the evidence. He’s just trying to convince the reader to not go looking for it. Evil genius, but genius nonetheless. The tactic of saying something casually is that a person is only willing to listen to a refutation that is as casual as the original claim. #OutgrowingGod Click To Tweet
So what can parents do?
- Help your kids understand the difference between story and evidence. When children are trained to recognize a story, they can brace themselves for someone trying to get a point across that may or may not be true. A good activity might be to tell a story from two different perspectives — one that leans heavily on making you sympathize with character A and another that makes you sympathize with character B. Show your kids how the same story can be said in different ways to manipulate what they think is true. (Kudos to any moms or dads who want to attempt this and send it to me. Shoot, let’s make it a contest. The best double short story which illustrates this point gets a signed copy of the book, and their story published on the Mama Bear blog. Send them to the contact page.)
- Possible problem: we need to differentiate between historical narratives in the Bible and the parables of Jesus. The parables are a good example of this technique being used for redeeming purposes. It’s totally fine to use stories to get ideas across. We just need to decide if the ideas that are being illustrated are Biblical or not. Or used to manipulate.
- Understand tactics like steamroller technique and examples vs. evidence – The purpose of understanding tactics is to identify when they are being used. That way, a person can say “Oh, this language is intended to be manipulative. I should read a little slower to see if what is being said is evidential or emotional. If it’s emotional, I can admit to myself “This may or may not be true. How does it make me feel? Do I think those feelings are based on truth, or am I reacting to the way the writer has presented the information?” You’d be surprised how far it’ll take your kids just in identifying a tactic. When it’s identified, it takes the teeth out of its persuasive power.
- Possible problem: Just remember, whatever we teach our kids to identify manipulation within the secular arena can equally be applied to things within the Christian arena, and I don’t actually think this is a bad thing. But it is something to be aware of. There are a lot of “techniques” that some churches use to manipulate people’s feelings and bypass their brains. I object to this happening in the church just as much as I do outside the church. However, we need to make sure that we don’t convey the message that emotions are themselves bad and never to be trusted. Again, I recommend the emotionalism chapter in the Mama Bear book. When you can identify the myriad of tactics Dawkins uses here, it takes the teeth out of the book's persuasive power. #OutgrowingGod @richarddawkins Click To Tweet
I hope this gives a brief insight into the psychology of Dawkins’ new book, as well as how some people are being distracted by the laser pointer red-dot (bad scholarship) while ignoring the real purpose and tactics of this book. Dawkins gives examples instead of evidence. When he does give evidence, it’s often factually wrong. He makes casual, sweeping statements that require long rebuttals, and uses emotional storytelling to sway the emotions before the truth of Christ can penetrate the mind. And Christians think he doesn’t know what he’s doing? I disagree.
What do you think? Am I giving him too much credit? Tell me about it in the comments. 🙂
Hillary Morgan Ferrer is the founder of Mama Bear Apologetics. She is coauthor and editor of the Mama Bear Apologetics book, and has been married to her husband, Dr. John D. Ferrer, for over 12 years. She is working on her second master’s degree, and yet can’t seem to figure out the simplest cooking recipes.