Friday, June 20, 2008

The God Delusion, Ch. 7 (part I)

We continue our critical journey through Richard Dawkins' best-selling case for atheism, The God Delusion, with a look today at chapter 7. Here Dawkins sets two tasks for himself. The first is to discredit the Bible, particularly the Old Testament (O.T.), and the second is to offer an alternative ethical narrative, what he calls the "moral zeitgeist," to that of the Bible. None of what he says in this chapter has anything to do with the question of God's existence, but it may nevertheless be of interest to Christians.

It has to be understood that Dawkins' arguments are often logically flimsy, and his facts and interpretations are often suspect. TGD is so poorly argued, in fact, that it would not be worth the time it takes to read it were it not that it has sold so many copies and had such a powerful impact on audiences around the world.

One part of his argument in chapter 7 seems to be that it is inconceivable that any God as great as theists imagine him would care about the paltry sins of tiny human beings on our speck of a planet. "We humans," he writes, "give ourselves such airs, even aggrandizing our pokey little 'sins' to the level of cosmic significance."

But of course our sins are of cosmic significance, and so are we, since the creator of the cosmos chose to atone for those sins by offering himself on the cross. Dawkins, almost child-like, seems to equate significance with relative size. Since we're so tiny compared to the universe, he reasons, it's absurd to think that a creator God would care about us. His reasoning reminds me of a scene in the classic film The Third Man where a criminal named Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles, takes his antagonist to the top of a Ferris wheel. From that vantage the people all look so small and their lives seem so insignificant. From that perspective it was easy for Lime to justify the crimes he committed against them. His victims were little more than ants. Dawkins apparently holds the Harry Lime view of humanity. We're so small that a God, if he existed, couldn't possibly care about us.

The Oxford professor goes on to examine the Old Testament stories and wonders why Christians would think that the people who are featured in them, people like Abraham, are moral exemplars. I know of no one, though, who has ever said that they were. The stories we read in the O.T. are instructive precisely because they teach us about the failings and faults common to humanity and how we are lost without God, not because they hold up the often sordid behavior of the characters as a model for the rest of us to emulate.

His basic point in the chapter, he tells us on p.279, is that because the O.T. characters are so depraved we can conclude that wherever modern moral ideas come from they don't come from the Bible. This, of course, is as silly as it can be. How does it follow from the fact that the Bible tells us about human sinfulness that therefore there are no moral principles to be found within its pages? Here are three principles that jump off almost every page of the Old Testament: Love God, do justice, and show compassion to the weak and poor. Dawkins apparently thinks that because these principles are often not followed that therefore they're not there.

Not only does Dawkins actually make the startling assertion that the Bible gives us no such principles, he also says that he doesn't think there's an atheist in the world who would do the sort of thing that religious people (Taliban Muslims) did in Afghanistan when they destroyed ancient Buddhist shrines and other sites of historical and religious value. Only religious people would be so philistine as to commit such an atrocity, he avers. Perhaps he was suffering a brain-freeze when he wrote this and had forgotten the crimes of the communists, committed in the name of state atheism, against Christian churches and clergy all through the twentieth century.

He wonders, too, who God was trying to impress by dying on the cross. Presumably, Dawkins sneers, he was trying to impress himself. This jejune comment reveals the utter shallowness of Dawkins' theological thought. If the crucifixion was intended to impress anyone it was intended to impress us. It was the greatest demonstration of love in the history of the world. The creator of the universe became one of us, not only to atone for our sin, but to give us a glimpse of how much he cherishes us. It's wonderful enough that a man would die for his friends who love him, but God died as well for those who, like Richard Dawkins, despise him. He wanted, among other things, to impress his beloved with the immensity of his love and what better way to do it than through such an unimaginable act of self-abnegation and sacrifice? Perhaps someone might send Dawkins a copy of Tale of Two Cities to help him understand how love can motivate such deeds.

Professor Dawkins vouchsafes to us the further revelation that Jesus never intended for his teaching to be given to anyone other than Jews (p.292) and that it was Paul who thought up the innovation of taking the gospel to the gentiles. He quotes with approval another writer who asserts that Jesus would be spinning in his grave if he knew that Paul had taken his message of love and forgiveness to the 'pigs' (gentiles). Regrettably he does not try to explain how this idea squares with the last couple of verses in Matthew's gospel where Jesus directs his disciples to take the gospel to the whole world, baptizing them and teaching them all that he has commanded. Nor is this claim easily reconciled with the parable of the Good Samaritan, the point of which is that we are enjoined to show compassion to everyone with whom we come in contact.

There is so much in chapter 7, as in the book as a whole, of which to be critical that it's difficult to limit oneself to spotlighting these few samples of Dawkinsian reasoning. Moreover, his reasoning is often so bad, so sophomoric, that one feels it is almost unsporting to deconstruct it. Even so, we'll plod on and look at some more of chapter 7 next time.


Ten Reasons for High Energy Costs

William Tate at the American Thinker offers his top ten reasons why we're suffering high gasoline prices and why the Democrats are largely to blame for each of them. Here are numbers ten through seven:

10) ANWR: If Bill Clinton had signed into law the Republican Congress's 1995 bill to allow drilling of ANWR instead of vetoing it, ANWR could be producing a million barrels of (non-Opec) oil a day--5% of the nation's consumption. Although speaking in another context, even Democrat Senator Charles Schumer, no proponent of ANWR drilling, admits that "one million barrels per day," would cause the price of gasoline to fall "50 cents a gallon almost immediately," according to a recent George Will column.

9) Coastal Drilling (i.e., not in my backyard) Democrats have consistently fought efforts to drill off the U.S. coast, as evidenced by Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz's preotestation against a failed 2005 bill: "Not only does this legislation dismantle the bi-partisan ban on offshore drilling, but it provides a financial incentive for states to do so."

A financial incentive? With [other countries] now slant drilling for oil just 50 miles off the Florida coast, wouldn't that have been a good thing?

8) Insistence on alternative fuels: One of the first acts of the new Democrat-controlled congress in 2007 was an energy bill that "calls for a huge increase in the use of ethanol as a motor fuel and requires new appliance efficiency standards." By focusing on alternative fuels such as ethanol, and not more drilling, Democrats have added to the cost of food, worsening starvation problems around the word and increasing inflationary pressures in the U.S., including prices at the pump.

7) Nuclear power: Even the French, who sometimes seem to lack the backbone to stand up for anything other than soft cheese, faced down their environmentalists over the need for nuclear power. France now generates 79% of its electricity from nuclear plants, mitigating the need for imported oil. The French have so much cheap energy that France has become the world's largest exporter of electric power. They have plans in place to build more reactors, including an experimental fusion reactor.

Read the other six at the link and every time you fill your tank or pay your home heating bill remind yourself that while these solutions remain unimplemented Congress spends much of its time and your tax dollars feverishly searching for a reason to impeach George Bush or to indict someone in his administration.


New Cancer Treatment

There's news from England of yet another encouraging treatment for some forms of cancer. This treatment involves selecting the few immune cells in the patient's body which fight cancer and cloning them so that billions of them can be injected back into the patient:

A cancer patient has made a full recovery after being injected with billions of his own immune cells in the first case of its kind, doctors have disclosed.

The 52-year-old, who was suffering from advanced skin cancer, was free from tumours within eight weeks of undergoing the procedure. After two years he is still free from the disease which had spread to his lymph nodes and one of his lungs.

Doctors took cells from the man's own defence system that were found to attack the cancer cells best, cloned them and injected back into his body, in a process known as "immunotherapy". After two years he is still free from the disease which had spread to his lymph nodes and one of his lungs.

The work raises hopes that this approach could not only offer a more effective treatment for skin cancer, or melanoma, which kills around 2,000 people in Britain alone, but be applied to other cancers too.

It's wonderful to think that perhaps within the lifetimes of many who are reading this a death from cancer will be as unusual as a death from small pox or polio.