“What if you’re wrong?”

A girl asked atheist Richard Dawkins one day, “What if you’re wrong?” In typical deprecating  fashion, Dawkins turned the question back to the girl, “But what if you are wrong?” [i]

The argument in Dawkins’ response, if you think about it, is relativism. The reason we believe what we believe – in flying spaghettis, Zeus, or the Christian God – is because we were brought up in a particular culture and nurtured in those beliefs. Had we been brought up somewhere else, our religious outlook would be different. As Dawkins has expressed in writing, “No doubt soaring cathedrals, stirring music, moving stories and parables, help a bit. But by far the most important variable determining your religion is the accident of birth.”[ii]

The assumption behind this assertion is significant: geographical determination. None of us can pretend to Truth, because our belief is socially determined. If we would believe in Thor had we been born a Viking, how can we pretend that our belief in God could be true? Atheists like Dawkins conclude that the diversity of human belief across history is the definite proof against God. If we see humans inventing objects of worship so creatively and so pervasively – sacred cows, the sun, Mother Earth, or God – surely the monotheistic God is just another invention, maybe more complex and civilized than the others, but a human creation nonetheless.


But let’s turn the table again: “Yes, sure, but what if you are wrong?” By the same logic, the only reason someone like Dawkins believes in relativism is because he was brought up in contemporary Britain. His belief is also socially determined, so how can he assert that his view is right and every other religious view is wrong? How come every other view is relativized but his relativism remains absolute? Relativism is not only arrogant toward others, but ironically inconsistent with itself.

Still, the argument of religious diversity is an eloquent one. Humans are intrinsically religious, and will find something to worship no matter how strange the god or goddess may be. On what basis can we assert that one specific belief is true while so many others are wrong? Doesn’t religious diversity lead us to conclude that religion is essentially a human creation?

For me the evidence points precisely in the opposite direction. Humans are intrinsically religious because there is a real God who created us and who we are searching for. We have this innate hunger because there is true satisfaction for our divine longing out there, just like our physical hunger demonstrates that there is real food that meets our needs. The fact that people eat the most bizarre objects – serpents, leafs, eggs of fish – is not proof that our physical hunger is a projection, but a precise proof of our need for food. Similarly, the diversity of belief across history is not proof that our soul hunger is a projection, but a precise proof that we have a craving for the divine, and will search for God even in the most unlikely of places.

But the skeptic may still rightly ask, “Ok, but on what basis do you claim that people search for God while adoring nature, and not, let’s say, search for the true goddess Aphrodite while worshipping the monotheistic God?” This is a great question, and could be dealt adequately only with another article. Yet atheism gives us a telling hint: if there were no God there would be no God to deny. “If there were no God, there would be no Atheists,” quipped G. K. Chesterton. Has there ever been an articulated, sustained movement like atheism against sacred cows or Aphrodite? Our very denial – of an eternal, omnipotent Father – assumes the form of what exists objectively. Our doubt mirrors our faith: we would not have to deny the existence of God if there was really no God to deny.

Belief in God could still be wrong, of course. My point here, however, is this: the diversity of human belief does not discredit faith but rather shows how forcefully we crave to worship something. If people are ready to adore even man-made statues, this shows us how urgent and true our spiritual hunger is. Religious diversity does not discourage robust faith, but is actually a compelling motivation to lead us to search, and discern, and surrender to, what is it that pulls our spirits so strongly toward worship.

René Breuel

[i] This video clip is actually the most seen Dawkins video on Youtube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6mmskXXetcg

[ii] Richard Dawkins, as quoted in his own website, http://richarddawkins.net/quotes/10.


11 responses to ““What if you’re wrong?”

  1. It’s really remarkable that Dawkins seems to think that he is exempt from the socio-cultural/historical influences that he is so fond of pointing out in the (religious) views of others. He, alone, sees clearly, I guess. Amazing.

    Thanks for this, Rene.

  2. I agree; religious diversity does not discredit a transcendental entity (god); however, the interpretive nature of religious conceptualization discloses the proclivity of human inquiry: who am I? God (whatever this word means) becomes a tool of explaining a limited scope of knowledge.

    Geographical aspects do determine the socio-religiosity of people. And if this is true, it is puzzling how inclusion is not fostered; only fundamentalist fervor is echoed; my phantasmal belief is greater than yours….interesting.

    • Thank you for your thoughts, Arius! Religion is indeed subject to interpretation, and largely fostered by the surrounding context. Still, these facts do not exclude an honest search for objective truth, eh?

  3. Comparing God to a flying spaghetti monster is Dawkin’s funny way to evade the question. I wonder if he ever came around to answering it or if he has ever considered that notion that he might be wrong.

  4. Well written. The fact that Dawkin’s rhetoric seems to fly in the face of most academics is quite worrying. Looking forward to reading more of your material on Wondering Fair. All the best.

  5. You wrote: “Atheists like Dawkins conclude that the diversity of human belief across history is the definite proof against God.” I’ve searched for Dawkins stating this but cannot find it. Could you point me to his verbal statement or it written in his literature that he, indeed, has said this? My understanding is that there are people who believe in many gods like the people in india. Not one, but many. That for you to state, “Our very denial – of an eternal, omnipotent Father…” – There are beliefs in a female not a male creator as well. I argue back that this is not a particularly strong argument when it comes to your point about a belief in a deity.

    • Thank you for your comment, Daniel! What would it entail in your view, then? Just geographical determination? And how would you distinguish that from a relativistic conclusion?

      Good to hear your thoughts!

      • Why work so hard to read a theory into such a simple exchange, especially when the source has produced so much explicit theory-talk of his own? Seriously, the man is full of theories, theories he has loudly proclaimed. One needn’t parse a straight-forward exchange for some hidden agenda.

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