This post is part of a series on The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. The previous post was The Roots of Religion and Morality (Chapters 5 & 6) and the next post is Child Indoctrination and the Atheist’s Vanishing(?) Consolation (Chapters 9 & 10).
It’s time to return to The God Delusion. Hello, old friend. I hope to finish up this series of posts relatively soon so I can move on to other things. My podcast has started taking a lot of the focus of my site, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. So perhaps that will be my primary outlet of content going forward with blog posts interspersed when inspired.
This is the fourth of five planned posts on The God Delusion, dealing with Chapters 7 & 8. There are some broader themes to respond to and comment on, but a large portion of these chapters is basically a laundry list of complaints about the Bible and/or Christian morality, so let’s jump to it.
The Not-So-Good Book
For a long time I had a document on my computer called “Remaining Issues with Christianity.” This is where I kept a list of what still caused me doubt and just didn’t make sense in my faith. I still have it, though it’s been a good while since I visited it. The last big item on there was what I called the “brutality and general mythological nature of much of the Old Testament,” so it goes without saying I certainly sympathize with Dawkins’ laundry list of issues with the Old Testament (he doesn’t spare the New entirely either).
Let me step back for a second and state that one of my strongest convictions when wrestling with my faith (and any difficult, emotional topic) is to commit to honesty, to never look at something and say it is good when it seems bad or vice versa (something I also spoke about when discussing handling gratitude in a psychologically health way). So there is a huge difference between considering a morally problematic passage in the OT and saying, “Well it’s not really that bad when you take into account <insert lame excuse here>,” and saying, “This passage seems awful, and I don’t understand it, but I feel like I have enough reasons to believe in Christianity to hold the issue in tension and hope perhaps one day I will resolve it.” One is a form of lying to yourself and those around you while the other is honest and perhaps even admirable if you truly do have good reasons to believe.
To get too much into the details of how I do ultimately reconcile the challenging parts of the Bible with the rest of my faith would take us far too off course, so I will keep this brief.
Perhaps the biggest umbrella I can put my view under is that I believe in some form of progressive revelation. For me, this means that the ancient Israelites probably started out being simply a tribal, warrior group of people with an equally tribal god (in their minds). The true God, who is much grander and better than anything they could’ve imagined or hoped for, accommodated to them and slowly brought them out of the fog, all the way up to the definitive, perfect revelation of himself in Jesus, particularly in his self-sacrificial death on the cross. There are many ways you can chart this progression, and it is arguably even taught outright in the Bible itself in some places (e.g. the book of Hebrews talking about the “types and shadows” of things to come). For those interested, I am highly sympathetic to Greg Boyd’s approach to all this in his book The Crucifixion of the Warrior God. You can hear an overview of his approach in this video from his website. It’s important to note that I do not take this approach simply as an “escape” from the difficult passages in the Old Testament. I take it because I think that it’s the best explanation behind a wide variety of data we see in the Old and New Testaments, including the way Jesus teaches using the Old Testament (e.g. at times directly subverting it).
That means that almost all of what Dawkins’ complains about in the Bible in these chapters doesn’t even apply to my faith, since I’m not literalistically committed to many of the passages he cites as problematic. The biggest charge you can then level against me is that perhaps I don’t have a proper view of the inspiration of the Bible. Fair point. That’s obviously a big topic in itself, so I will simply point out that even that is a bit murky in the Bible itself. It’s clearly considered “inspired”1 (literally “God-breathed”) but what does that mean exactly? I’ll leave that to the side for now, since that’s ultimately an in-house discussion within Christianity itself.
The point is that much of what he brings up only works against a very conservative form of belief, and one that I don’t think the teaching of the Bible itself even requires. So the parts I disagree with him aren’t really worth responding to (since they’re irrelevant), and then there’s plenty of parts I would agree with him on anyway but that I wouldn’t say affect the case for the Christian faith being true. As I described in a recent podcast episode on The Black Swan, I want to focus on the crucial parts of my faith and not allow the less important details, particularly the ones that might not even be relevant, cloud the discussion. So for the readers hotly anticipating a deep dive into the implications of Lot’s wife turning into salt, I’m sorry to disappoint.
Inevitable Moral Progress
One of my favorite parts of the entire book is here, in his discussion of the slow, inevitable (in his view) progression of the global moral zeitgeist. He uses quotations from Abraham Lincoln and other esteemed, progressive people of the past to show how horrible some of their views would actually seem to modern sensibilities. It can be surreal to read these direct quotations from our heroes and be disgusted by them—it certainly paints a colorful picture.
His point is that there seems to be a slow but steady progression in our overall moral thinking, so much that the best of humanity a century ago would seem like despicable people in today’s world with regards to some areas of morality. The real point to all of this though is that we do not get our morals from the Bible, or any religious text, and that moral progress happens probably in spite of religious texts, and certainly not because of. However, that essentially takes us back to the discussion we already had in my last post regarding the origin of human morality. I would kindly instruct the reader to visit that post for more information.
The St. Paul Depth Charge
I would like to push back on another thing as well. There is no shortage of spilled ink on the evils the church has committed, and I’m sure Dawkins’ would love to have our modern morality completely untethered from any sort of religious root. However, there is a case to made that Christianity is actually indeed the root of our modern morality. The author and historian Tom Holland, who is not himself a believing Christian, describes in the brief video below how his historical research changed his mind about how Christianity influenced the world, and ultimately decided that it had a profoundly positive impact on basic human rights.
In an article for The New Statesmen, Holland goes on to write:
…the notion that a god might have suffered torture and death on a cross was so shocking as to appear repulsive. Familiarity with the biblical narrative of the Crucifixion has dulled our sense of just how completely novel a deity Christ was. In the ancient world, it was the role of gods who laid claim to ruling the universe to uphold its order by inflicting punishment – not to suffer it themselves.
Today, even as belief in God fades across the West, the countries that were once collectively known as Christendom continue to bear the stamp of the two-millennia-old revolution that Christianity represents. It is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value. In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.Tom Holland: Why I was wrong about Christianity (The New Statesmen – September 2016)
In the ancient world, at a time when Roman and Greek elites would openly brag about the ways in which they were exploiting the weak, Paul and Jesus were promoting the equality of Greek and Jew, slave and free, male and female2.
Just to clarify, I’m not trying to build some massive argument that shows that Christianity is the root of all moral progress–of course not. But I do want to shift the conversation some to show that a case can indeed be made that Christianity is a (the?) deep foundation below things like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights3 that are so crucial to, and appropriately treasured by, modern society.
The Evils of Absolutism
In the last few sections, Dawkins deals with the evils of absolutism and fundamentalism. One can only agree with him that religious belief in particular can be an extraordinarily potent force for mind control. But Dawkins also seems to make the assumption that Christianity is fundamentalist by its very nature and that Christians teach that having faith, in spite of evidence (it is assumed), is a virtue.
I’ll admit things aren’t clear cut here since different Christians use different epistemologies to support their beliefs. And while faith is of course considered a virtue in Christianity, the word “faith” can be defined multiple different ways. So it’s probably best here to speak for my own faith primarily. For me it is emphatically not a virtue to believe something in spite of arguments and evidence (listen to my podcast episode Logic Always Wins for an elaboration on this point). Yes, like all complex beliefs about the world, Christianity can require you to hold certain things in tension while you attempt to figure out the underlying resolution, but Christianity is not a solipsistic religion or one that embraces logical absurdities4. On the contrary, its very foundation is the idea of a perfectly good and rational God that has created both the natural world and our minds. After all the gospel of John opens referring to Jesus repeatedly as the cosmic Logos, which is after all the root word of “logic.”
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- 2 Timothy 3:16
- Galatians 3:28
- In this interview from the same show as the previously linked video, Nick Spencer discusses human rights and how the UDHR was specifically influenced by Catholic social theory
- Probably the closest thing to embracing an absurdity is Paul’s talk of the “foolishness” of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18). But I think that is considered more a scandal to the sensibilities rather than a logical contradiction.