America may or may not be a Christian nation, but two atheist manifestoes are on the best-seller lists: Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation and Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. Michael Conlon reports on this phenomenon from Chicago, quoting Wheaton College theologian Timothy Larsen: “Some of these are people we wounded that we should be handling pastorally rather than with aggressive knockdown debate.” His condescension is no more palatable than Dawkins’s predictable sneers.

Conlon quotes both sides, but they’re just pushing their beliefs or unbeliefs. No one’s looking for evidence wherever it leads — the only person I know of who does that is NYU’s Thomas Nagel. He cemented his status as my favorite philosopher with a sophisticated takedown of Dawkins in the New Republic (subscription only; text also available here).

The key question is whence came design in nature. Dawkins says God’s no explanation, because then you have to explain God. But on this field Nagel is a pro and Dawkins is an amateur: “All explanations come to an end somewhere,” explains Nagel, since Dawkins evidently didn’t do the reading. “On either view [Dawkins’s secularism or the God hypothesis], the ultimate explanation is not itself explained. The God hypothesis does not explain the existence of God, and naturalistic physicalism does not explain the laws of physics.”

Having laid out the rules of the match, Nagel finds that the God hypothesis loses round one, since “the theory of evolution through heritable variation and natural selection” explains how intricate designs such as the eye can come about naturally, and hence these designs no longer provide evidence for the God hypothesis.

But round two is still being fought out, because the evolutionary process is undergirded by DNA. And since DNA itself can’t have evolved, where did it come from? “At this point the origin of life remains, in light of what is known about the huge size, the extreme specificity, and the exquisite functional precision of the genetic material, a mystery — an event that could not have occurred by chance and to which no significant probability can be assigned on the basis of what we know of the laws of physics and chemistry.”

Of course that could change, and likely will if we can keep the theocrats at bay and dispassionate biological research going. (BTW, Nagel isn’t buying Dawkins’s idea that everything can be reduced to physics in any case.  No matter what anyone says, your own experience of being aware isn’t the same thing as neurons firing in the brain. Some things are just . . .  different.)

Even if the God hypothesis were confirmed, it offers little comfort to believers. Nagel delivers the throwaway line early: “The purposes of such a [hypothetical] creator remain obscure, given what we know about the world.” On the New Republic site, commenter jhildner did a nice job of unpacking this:

“Does it follow from this alleged act of creation that the creator continues to exert influence over events? That it is one force and not many? That is is a benevolent force? That it still exists today? That it has desires as well as agency? There’s a fun Simpsons Halloween special in which Lisa unintentionally creates a minature civilization by placing a tooth in a container of soda for a school science project, and the minature people think she’s God. Can our dispassionate observer rule out the possibility that the universe is an alien’s science project? Can he reasonably infer that any tenet of any major religion is factually true? I don’t think so.”

Unfortunately, the fate of honest inquirers like Nagel is to be selectively quoted and used by religionists like Stephen Barr at First Things — or, worse, evolution deniers — to prop up their dogma. George Orwell, call your office.

(Two much-discussed Dawkins reviews are Jim Holt’s in the New York Times and Terry Eagleton’s in the London Review of Books.)