Bantam Press, 2006.
Many years ago when I read the short volume by atheist Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian, I thought: there is not much substance to this. Generalisations, straw men, red herrings and misrepresentations seemed to characterise the book. In many ways that is how I regard Dawkins’ book. It is longer, more sophisticated and more comprehensive, but it bears the same traits as found in Russell’s 1927 tract.
Indeed, there are atheists and there are atheists. The garden-variety don’t like religion, don’t like God and don’t like people who do. Then there is the especially hard-core variety. These are atheists who are on a mission, an evangelistic crusade to save the world from religion. They hate religion and are convinced it must be eradicated at all costs. Such atheists have every bit as much zeal and fanaticism in their secular jihad as a religious person ever will. Richard Dawkins is a classic example of the atheist storm-trooper.
The Oxford biologist has been spewing forth anti-religious bigotry and animosity for some time now. His newest book is no exception. It continues his passionate crusade to rid the world of every last vestige of religion. For in Dawkins’ eyes, religion is the source of all evil, while atheism is the path of enlightenment, brotherhood and liberation.
Thus his new 400-page polemic is a wholesale diatribe against God and religion, and a frontal assault on anyone who is ‘stupid’ enough to believe in anything other than what his atheist weltanschauung allows. As such, there are two things a reviewer must contend with here. One is the actual content of the book and the arguments presented. Those will be addressed in due course.
The other is the overwhelming arrogance, pomposity and self-assuredness of the author. He can admit to no wrong, and will not allow any quarter from his enemies. There is just one choice. One must either believe Dawkins and his atheism, or one is deluded. It is as simple as that. There is no middle ground. One is either a blind, ignorant fool who is overwhelmed by delusion, or one sees the light through the lens of atheism.
It would seem that such fundamentalist intolerance would be enough to make many question whether in fact his arguments are all that decisive. If a believer were to argue in such a belligerent and intolerant fashion, most atheists would dismiss him out of hand, regardless of how sound his argumentation might be.
Indeed, Dawkins even justifies his belligerence. He says that there is nothing about religion that deserves any respect, and none should be shown to it. Of course he seeks to be an equal opportunity offender, bagging all religions along the way. But the Christian religion seems to bear a disproportionate brunt of his rage. Indeed, I lost count of the number of times he equates religionists in general, and American Christians in particular, with the Taliban.
But leaving aside the sheer nastiness and arrogance of the author and his style, it is to his actual content that the reviewer must now turn. And a 400-page book cannot adequately be assessed in a short review like this. Thus not every aspect of the book can be covered. But some key themes will be examined, especially as they impact on Christianity, since that is the camp I belong to.
The Bitter Assault on Christianity
Christianity certainly seems to get the bulk of Dawkins’ bile and venom. It is to Christianity that the most attention is spent, and the most bitterness and rancour is noticed.
While his attacks on Christianity are scattered throughout the book, there are two main places where he specifically targets the world’s largest religion. The first is in a chapter on arguments for God’s existence. The traditional arguments, such as the cosmological or ontological arguments, are given swift and sophomoric treatment by Dawkins (he thinks he has completely destroyed them in nine brief pages), and his criticisms would not pass a Theology 101 exam. But in this chapter he has a short section on “the arguments from Scripture”.
In six short pages he smugly assumes he has demolished the case for the authority of Scripture, particularly the reliability of the gospels. He claims the gospels “are not reliable accounts of what happened in the history of the real world”. He compares them to The Da Vinci Code and says both were “invented, made-up fiction”.
His superficial assault on the gospels are wrong on almost every count. He claims they were “written long after the death of Jesus, and also after the epistles of Paul”. While the gospel of John was probably written sometime in the 90s, Mark could well have been written in the late 50s or early 60s. Matthew and Luke also were written sometime in the 60s. And the writings of Paul were most likely penned between the late 40s and the mid 60s.
Thus all the gospels were written within 30 to 60 years of Jesus’ death, while Paul’s writings were penned even earlier. This is actually quite a remarkable fact, placing the historicity of Jesus on more sure footing than almost any other historical figure of antiquity. Not only are these documents written very close to the time of the actual events, but we have many thousands of portions of the New Testament documents as well. Who else do we know of living so long ago having such reliable testimony?
Yet Dawkins persists in his kindergarten criticism: The gospel writers “almost certainly never met Jesus personally”. Luke probably did not, but John was part of the inner circle of Jesus, along with Peter, whom Mark draws upon. And Matthew was most likely one of the twelve.
If this is the best Dawkins can come up with, utilising such juvenile arguments and sloppy scholarship, then one has to wonder just how reliable he is on other themes addressed in this book.
The second major assault on Christianity comes in a chapter in which he seeks to demonise the Old and New Testaments. In each he selectively picks out a few incidents which he does not like, and then seeks to assure us that the whole of Scripture is this terrible, and it all can therefore be dismissed.
As to the Old Testament, he says it is “just plain weird” with parts of it “systematically evil”. For example he dismisses the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac as a “disgraceful story” about “child abuse and bullying”. Acts of God’s judgment are described as “God’s jealous sulk,” “God’s maniacal jealousy,” “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide”. Yahweh is simply a “cruel ogre” and a “monster” according to Dawkins.
Interestingly, in a different part of the book, he maligns creationists for “gleefully quoting out of context”. Yet this is exactly what Dawkins does throughout this whole section of his book. Ignoring context or even at least featuring instances of God’s love and mercy to gain some perspective, he simply picks a few examples of what he sees as God’s nastiness and ugliness.
But the New Testament is not much better according to Dawkins. Consider the heart of the Christian faith, the atonement. The cross of Christ is too much for Dawkins. It barely exceeds the “viciousness” of the Old Testament. The atonement is just plain “vicious, sado-masochistic and repellent,” is “morally obnoxious,” and should be dismissed as “barking mad”.
He makes so many major blunders here that one doesn’t know where to begin. He makes the rather strange claim that much of what the four evangelists wrote “was simply rehashed from the Old Testament”. While they wrote in a setting of first-century Judaism, the main topic of the gospels, Jesus’ life and message, was far from just old Jewish thinking. While based on what went before, and certainly the subject of fulfilled prophesy, it was the radicalness and uniqueness of his message that finally got him killed.
The Jews of his day saw his message as revolutionary, overturning traditional Jewish understanding. While based on and flowing from Old Testament teachings, it was in fact a radically new and distinct spin on things.
He also makes this bizarre claim: In both Testaments “‘Love thy neighbor’ didn’t mean what we now think it means. It meant only ‘Love another Jew’.” Of course everything about Jesus – both word and deed – argued just the opposite. It was God’s unbounded love that he taught, a love for all people, not just God’s covenant people. The parable of the Good Samaritan is just one of many examples. And Dawkins doesn’t even try to base this weird claim on any theologian, simply on one evolutionary anthropologist.
Indeed, who does he consistently rely upon in these sections of his book as his authoritative sources for such claims? He simply appeals to several theological liberals and skeptics as his ‘experts’. People such as John Shelby Spong, A.N. Wilson, Robin Lane Fox and Thomas Jefferson are the best he can muster for his attacks on Scripture and his offbeat remarks about Christianity. Such fringe writers come nowhere near representing mainstream scholarship on these questions. He simply picks and chooses those who happen to agree with him, while ignoring the vast amount of scholars who take a much different approach.
For all of his hatred of Christianity, Dawkins has to go much further if he wants to offer an intellectually satisfying debunking of this faith. His arguments are simply shallow and unconvincing. They are also poorly argued, with hardly any substantial documentation or evidence.
At most, his arguments tell us more about his own twisted temperament, and his anti-Christian bigotry. They certainly do not offer us a telling critique of the Christian faith.
Part 2 of this article is found here: billmuehlenberg.com/2006/12/29/a-review-of-the-god-delusion-by-richard-dawkins-part-2/