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.RLC