Tell Me About the God You Don't Believe In A Conversation with Richard Dawkins
I first became aware of Richard Dawkins about ten or eleven years ago, right after the publication of his book The God Delusion. Another Epworth member had read the book and told me she was quite taken by it. I took a glance at the book and skimmed through it, but didn’t give it much further thought at the time.
Richard Dawkins is perhaps the world’s most prominent atheist. I’ve always had a question for atheists: tell me about the god you don’t believe in… I have a hunch that many of the things an atheist might find not credible, I might also find not credible. But I’ve found it hard to get that question asked. Whenever someone has mentioned to me that they’re an atheist, it seems the conversation always gets steered in other directions.
So enter Dr. Richard Dawkins. Dr. Dawkins is a fellow of New College, Oxford. He is the distinguished author of many texts on evolutionary biology, his field. He is also a best-selling author on religion, a subject about which he is surprisingly passionate (for an atheist). His book The God Delusion has sold millions of copies, so he's got a pretty good cottage industry going there!
I've never met Dawkins. I have read his book. I’ve watched him on YouTube. I’ve listened to the podcast of a recent appearance at The Commonwealth Club of California. I find him a charming man. His talk was humorous, articulate, engaging, and easy to listen to. We agree about some of the things he says about the Bible, some of the things he says about religious doctrine. We do end up in different places.
But let's start where we agree.
We agree that science is valuable, that the scientific method is an indispensable way of discovering truth about the physical universe. Now, Dawkins comes across people all the time who dispute evolution because it doesn’t fit with the preconceptions of their faith. They don’t look at the data. They just look at Genesis 1, and they reject evolution. Dawkins is irritated with them, and I don’t blame him. He writes, "I am hostile to fundamentalist religion because it actively debauches the scientific enterprise" (p 321). He says “hostile;” I'd use the word “embarrassed.” I am embarrassed by much of what the church has done through the ages in the face of scientific advances: rejecting Copernicus, excommunicating Galileo, fiercely resisting Darwin, again, without looking at the hard data.
I agree with what Dawkins says about the so-called Old Testament “texts of terror”. These passages are part of the Deuteronomic History. They tell the story of the Israelites' conquest of Canaan. They are written by an author with a primitive theology of a warlike god. There’s some horrid stuff here, often brutal, often misogynistic. Of course, Dawkins puts it more colorfully than I would:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction:
jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser.... [and so on] (p 51).
He’s obviously put off by these texts, but so are many of us. We agree.
I agree with Dawkins' distaste for the substitutionary theory of the atonement. This is the doctrine that says — God doesn’t punish us for our sins; God punished Jesus in our place on the cross. Dawkins is horrified. "If God wanted to forgive our sins, why not just forgive them, without having himself tortured and executed in payment." Indeed! Great question.
And finally, I totally agree with Dawkins in my horror at extreme fundamentalists who feel justified in murdering innocent human beings. We totally agree on this point, and so do all of us here today.
So there are significant ways that we agree — that science is valuable; that OT texts of terror are disturbing; that the substitutionary theory of the atonement is problematic; and that violent fundamentalism is a scourge on the world.
But... and you knew there was going to be a “but” — I find his larger argument flawed because I find his methodology flawed. How so?
His scope is way too narrow. Dawkins only deals with the worst of the worst. The god he denies is a supernatural being who sidesteps nature, doing things like virgin births — or granting victory to his chosen sports teams. Dawkins acknowledges there are reasonable theologians — he mentions Bonhoeffer and Bishop Jack Spong — but then he says that the number of adherents to “decent” religion is so “numerically negligible” that he puts this beyond the scope of his inquiry. He limits the scope of his project only to the most extreme and unattractive aspects of the OT, NT, and religious doctrine.
His methodology entirely disregards diversity within the Bible and within the world’s religious traditions. Dawkins acknowledges that there is variety in the Bible, but he describes it in the most off-putting way I can imagine. The Bible, in his words, is "a chaotically cobbled-together anthology of disjointed documents" (p 268).
Yes, the Bible is an anthology. And, yes, if you’ve not studied it, all those voices can be confusing and seem chaotic. But if all you can say is that the Bible is nothing more than a chaotic mess, that suggests to me that you just haven't done the research.
The Bible is a diverse book. The Bible includes an impressive variety of voices, debating back and forth across the centuries. Diversity is the very point of the Bible … and, ironically, diversity is the very point of his field as well. Aren’t evolutionary biologists interested in the diversity of life on earth, trying to learn how life became so diverse? Didn't Darwin study the diverse phenotypes of the same species of birds on different islands in the Galapagos? Doesn't his theory of Natural Selection explain how they might have adapted to their specific environments? Biblical scholars do the same thing with the different books of the Bible. But Dawkins has disregarded serious biblical scholarship and focused only on the easy targets, the low-hanging fruit, the texts of terror.
That’s like studying only rattlesnakes and announcing that this is what life on earth is like.
The same thing applies when Dawkins examines the world’s religious traditions. Our friend Huston
Smith made the study of the world’s religions his life’s work, and he discusses their broad range —
West Asian religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), South Asian religions (Hinduism,
Buddhism), and East Asian Religions (Confucianism, Taoism). But Dawkins focuses only on the
Western religions, and within that broad category, he focuses even more narrowly, mainly on the Christian tradition. He cites as his reason that this is the tradition he’s most familiar with. But be that as it may, he pronounces, "The differences matter less than the similarities" (p 59). What if Darwin had taken that approach? He would never have published The Origin of Species.
So my point: Professor Dawkins is well aware of the methodological rigor required to do worthwhile science. He fails to employ that same rigor in reading the Bible and studying the world’s religions. He just rails on his pet peeves that justify his prejudices and those of his millions of readers.
He has every right to do that, and his readers have every right to enjoy what he writes. The God Delusion is a good read. It's fun ... but just don’t mistake it for serious theology.
We’ve talked about the god I don’t believe in. What can I say about the God I do believe in?
All truth is God’s truth, and people of faith have nothing to fear from the honest search for truth. Sometimes that search may take us far afield, and we may meander in directions we never expected, but the search for truth is the search for God.
As human society has matured over the centuries, our view of God has matured as well.
The Deuteronomic historian saw God as vindictive, warlike, and xenophobic.
The OT writers of Ruth and Jonah countered that view, insisting that God cares for and works through people of all nations.
The great Hebrew prophets — Isaiah and Jeremiah, Amos and Micah — took it even further: God is concerned not with religious rituals but with doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God.
Jesus taught that the first commandment was to love our neighbor; reminded us that our neighbors include the Samaritan foreigners in our midst; and challenged us to love even our enemies.
In every generation, the people of God struggle with the cutting edge of who God is and how God is calling us to be faithful in our time. Our understanding of God has grown up and continues to grow up, sometimes with a great deal of pain.
True religion never means closing our minds and clinging blindly to ancient formulations of faith. True religion means being radically opening to asking real questions, like the one asked by the Psalmist:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? (Ps 8:4-5)
This verse ends with a question mark, which is pretty much my point:
Faith means — asking real questions.
Faith means — never being satisfied with provisional answers.
Faith means — recognizing that all our answers are provisional.
Faith means — keeping heart, mind, and spirit alive to the unknown.
Faith means — being open to the mystery of life.
I suspect Richard Dawkins might be OK with that … and that we could have a really interesting conversation.
page references from… Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (NY: First Mariner Books, 2008)