Does Richard Dawkins’ View of The Old Testament Lack Objectivity?

Dawkins devotes a section in The God Delusion to the Old Testament. However, there is little objective analysis and his musings are primarily a journey through a number of violent tales, including:

• The tale of Noah – God drowns the whole of mankind except one family and countless animals.
• The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah – Lot offers his two daughters to the mob in Sodom rather than hand over two angels. Lot’s wife subsequently died (killed by God for turning around to watch the destruction of the city) and his two daughters who later slept with their father whilst he was drunk.
• The story of the Levite – a Levite gives over his daughter to a mob to be sexually assaulted.
• Various stories about Abraham – Abraham twice pretends his wife is his sister. Worse, he is prepared to sacrifice his son to God on God’s say-so.
• Jephthah’s daughter – If God will deliver him victory in battle, Jephthah promises to sacrifice the first person who comes out to meet him upon his return home from the battle. This person turns out to be his daughter and, despite his grief, he fulfils his vow.
• The slaughter of the Midianites – God incited Moses to attack and destroy the Midianites.
• The many examples of God’s jealousy – God frequently warns the Israelites against worshipping false gods.
• The book of Joshua – this includes a mass of bloodthirsty violence.
• The story of wood-gatherer – a man is stoned for deliberately breaking the Sabbath.

Interspersed with these examples of brutality, Dawkins makes the following points:

• Theologians argue that much of the Bible is not taken literally any more. This says Dawkins is his point; we pick and choose what we want, therefore this is not an absolute morality.
• Despite this, many people continue to take the Bible literally. Many Asian holy men blamed the 2004 tsunami on human misdemeanours. Further examples of literalism are quoted from America’s fundamentalist right.
• He points out that some of the stories reveal the lack of respect accorded to women in this religious culture.

Before we consider each of Dawkins’ points in turn, let us put the Old Testament in its context. C S Lewis describes the Old Testament as the period in history when God tried to hammer into one particular people (the Jews) the nature of his character, that is, that he was the One and only God and that he cared about Right Behaviour. This is the context in which the Old Testament should be evaluated.

Many people argue that we see a different God in the Old and New Testaments. This is not the case. We may see a different side of God in each case but his nature is entirely consistent across the entire Bible. For example, the loving, compassionate God of the New Testament is equally present in the Old Testament. Let us be clear about this because Dawkins’ pernicious portrayal of Yahweh is contradicted in many places. For example, Exodus 34:

“The Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”

This is an unequivocal description of the God of the Old Testament. There is no doubting his goodness, but perhaps what is most striking is that, exactly like the New Testament, he is a personal God. This unequivocal description of the nature of God and his personal relationship with man contradicts much of what Dawkins says when he relates tales of wickedness and brutality from the Old Testament. Dawkins also (again) confuses God with Man. Many of the stories that he quotes are simply stories of man’s corruption. Look around at the world today and we see exactly the same stories happening every day, Man abusing his privileged position in the universe. It is a gross mistake to ascribe characteristics to God based on these stories.

Another factor we need to bear in mind is one mentioned by Dawkins, that there are passages in the Bible that are figurative in nature and others that are literal. Christians differ in their opinions as to which are which but whatever each of us believes, it does not change the truth of the existence of God. Contrary to Dawkins’ claim, this does not mean that we can pick and choose what we believe in the Bible. Whether something is literal or figurative does not change its underlying truth. The message is the same.

What about the specific stories of violence taken from the Old Testament and quoted by Dawkins? Let us take one take one of them and see if we can make any sense of it; say the case of Jephthah’s daughter. If God will deliver him victory in battle, Jephthah promises to sacrifice the first person who comes out to meet him upon his return home from the battle. This person turns out to be his daughter and, despite his grief, he fulfils his vow. What does this story tell us?

The most striking thing about this passage is that it is about Jephthah, not about God. God is not said to condone the sacrifice. In fact, the opposite is true. The terrible outcome of Jephthah’s oath merely serves to underline the wrongness of his oath. God does not want spiritual deals; he wants obedience. In fact, Jephthahs’ oath reveals a lack of faith because there was no need for him to make it. God would have delivered the enemy in any event. Some may argue that the tale is figurative, others that Jephthah did not ultimately sacrifice his daughter but, for our purposes, the point is irrelevant. These were simply the actions of a man a long time ago and many men have committed similar acts of folly in the interim. Our job is to take a message from the story; perhaps that we should be careful what we promise in the pursuit of our own ends, particularly when these promises are made to God. God does not want promises for the future but obedience for today.

As for the many other stories related by Dawkins, he takes his usual simplistic six-year-old approach to the Old Testament and, taking them out of context, seeks to apply them to the modern world. Clearly, this is grossly inappropriate. Man’s cultural, social, economic and political development in the intervening period means that we cannot judge events in quite the same way. Again, my advice for those interested would be, not to rely on Dawkins, but to do your own research.

Dawkins’ unreliability in matters of religion is underlined by his comment that, if God were all-powerful, he would not be bothered with human misdeeds.

“By the way, what presumptuous egocentricity to believe that earth-shaking events, on a scale at which a god might operate, must always have a human connection. Why should a divine being, with creation and eternity on his mind, care a fig for petty human malefactions?”

Dawkins fails to grasp even the simplest of Christian principles; that God is a personal God and that his purpose is to enjoy a meaningful relationship with Man. In this context, it is inconceivable that God, in his contemplation of the universe, would not always have Man on his mind. He cares about petty human malefactions because he cares for us. As a parent with a child, he knows that all malefactions, no matter how petty, will hurt us, unless checked.

In support of his argument he quotes like-minded people such as American physicist Steven Weinberg, who says:

“religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things it takes religion.”

These are not the words of an impartial observer. Weinberg also said:

“I am all in favour of a dialogue between science and religion, but not a constructive dialogue.”

In case there is any doubt to his own personal agenda, consider his partisan interpretation of the anthropic principle:

“Reasoning like this is called ‘anthropic.’ Sometimes it just amounts to an assertion that the laws of nature are what they are so that we can exist, without further explanation. This seems to me to be little more than mystical mumbo jumbo. On the other hand, if there really is a large number of worlds in which some constants take different values, then the anthropic explanation of why in our world they take values favourable for life is just common sense, like explaining why we live on the earth rather than Mercury or Pluto.”

The anthropic principle, rather than a meaningless tautology, is now just common sense. Only someone starting with a preconceived answer would use the anthropic principle to justify any argument. And what of his claim that religion is an “insult to human dignity”? Oh dear, how we elevate ourselves. If there is any “presumptuous egocentricity”, then it is not to be found in religion but in the posturings of such as Weinberg and Dawkins.

Furthermore, I take issue with his statement hat it “takes religion for good people to do evil”. In what name did we fire-bomb the cities of Germany, slaughtering and maiming millions? In what name did we drop the second atomic bomb on Japan, achieving the same? In what name did we napalm the jungles of Vietnam, ditto? The list goes on. For good people to do evil things, it takes religion? Wishful thinking on Weinberg’s part, I am afraid.

Finally, women! Dawkins claims that some of the stories he quotes from the Old Testament reveal the lack of respect accorded to women in this religious culture. This is probably true but it would be more accurate to describe the culture to which this relates as historical rather than religious. I cannot answer for any other religion, but there is no question that Christianity dictates that men and women are born equal and should be treated so.

In conclusion, Dawkins stresses that his main purpose in this section has been to demonstrate not that we shouldn’t get our morals from scripture, but that, in fact, we don’t. To my mind, he has not demonstrated this at all. He shows a lack of basic understanding of the subject he claims to be investigating and has clearly done little genuine research. Furthermore, most of his argument is of the diatribe variety and superficial in nature.

His argument also suffers from the weakness of his own position with regards to the principle of morality. As we have seen before, his view of morality is that it is an evolutionary construct, whether as by-product or otherwise. Therefore, to Dawkins, morality is a word used to describe a behavioural consensus and has no relevance to any standard of goodness; indeed, this standard does not exist. As such, his argument is that morality, as most people understand it, does not exist. We are not good or bad people, we simply act in a particular way consistent with our evolutionary heritage. If circumstances change, and it becomes necessary for us to act in what many would consider an immoral fashion, then so be it. Given this view of morality, how can take his pontifications seriously?

As for relevance to the everyday world, I dare anyone to read Ecclesiastes and not recognise its timeless currency:

“If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things: for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still. The increase in the land is taken by all; the King himself profits from the fields.

Whoever loves money never has money enough;
Whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income.
This too is meaningless.

As goods increase,
so do those who consume them.
And what benefit are they to the owner
except to feast his eyes on them?

The sleep of a labourer is sweet,
whether he eats little or much,
but the abundance of a rich man
permits him no sleep.

I have seen a grievous evil under the sun:

Wealth hoarded to the harm of its owner,
or wealth lost through some misfortune
so that when he has a son,
there is nothing left for him.
Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb
And as he comes, so he departs.
He takes nothing from his labour
that he can carry in his hand.

This too is a grievous evil:

As a man comes, so he departs,
and what does he gain,
since he toils for the wind?
All his days he eats in darkness,
With great frustration, affliction and anger.

Then I realised that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labour under the sun during the few days of life God has given him – for this is his lot. Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work – this is a gift of God. He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart.”

(Ecclesiastes 5:8-20)

Dawkins ends the section with the conclusion that the values of the Old Testament are “pretty unpleasant”. This seems to me something of a simplistic conclusion, particularly as Dawkins’ assessment of the text is practically non-existent. He now turns to the New Testament and asks the question; is it any better?

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