The Evil God of the Old Testament: A Problematic Argument for Atheism
March 5, 2010 § 8 Comments
Note: I do not consider this essay completed by any means. I wrote this late one night after reading and thinking about Dawkins’ arguments, but ended up forgetting to return to it to complete it (and I still haven’t gotten around to it). I know it’s messy, so please drop a comment.
In his wildly popular book The God Delusion, biologist and adamant atheist Richard Dawkins offers almost nothing new to the millennia long debate about the existence of God. What he does offer, however, is the argument that not only is belief in God irrational, but also dangerous. Dawkins uses countless historical examples of religious violence and oppression, in particular the wrathful actions of the God of the Old Testament. Dawkins claims that,
“There are two ways in which scripture might be a source of morals or rules for living. One is by direct instruction, for example through the Ten Commandments, which are the subject of such bitter contention in the culture wars of America’s boondocks. The other is by example: God, or some other biblical character, might serve as – to use the contemporary jargon – a role model. Both scriptural routes, if followed through religiously… encourage a system of morals which any civilized modern person, whether religious or not, would find – I can put it no more gently – obnoxious” (The God Delusion).
This passage is characteristic of Dawkins in a few ways. First, it showcases Dawkins’ skillful rhetoric and biting criticism. Whether in lecture or in writing, Dawkins loves using denigrating language towards those on the other side, particularly when characterizing his radical atheism as ‘rational’ and a belief in any kind of God as ‘irrational’ (i.e. ‘flying spaghetti monster,’ ‘santa clause,’ etc.). From the lectures and writings of his that I’ve been exposed to, I’ve noticed that Dawkins has developed somewhat of a crutch out of his witty banter.
More importantly, though, Dawkins demonstrates another common characteristic of his writing: an almost unbelievably elementary understanding of Christian doctrine. He summarizes the two possible sources of Biblical moral authority as 1) through ‘direct instruction,’ which I take to mean direct utterances of ‘do this’ or ‘don’t do that’ by God in scripture, and 2) through simply copying every one of God’s actions recorded in the Bible. His reasoning here is problematic in that it presumes no third option (i.e. he forces the reader to confront a dilemma which does not exist). Christian moral standards (for me at least) seem to derive ultimately from a simple set of truths about the universe, namely that a) all humans are made in the image of God (i.e. possessing reason, feelings, wants, character, etc.), b) that because of this they are of infinite value and c) therefore ought to be treated with dignity and respect. Although there is much more explanation and discussion that could focus on any part of the syllogism above, it seems clear that it does not fall into either of the two possibilities for scriptural moral authority given by Dawkins.
As the chapter continues it is increasingly clear that Dawkins intends to use this false dilemma to trap the reader into offering a modern justification for an upfront, literal reading of every passage of the Old Testament with no regard or thought to any theological sophistication. Let’s grant for a moment, though, that all Christian moral standards must come from either a) direct quotes of God declaring ‘thou shalts’ and ‘thou shalt nots’, or b) having the legitimacy to do only that which God shows us as a role model. Let us also assume that there never have been or will be any theological discussions regarding the meaning or interpretation of the Old Testament. From these assumptions, we are forced to arrive at the conclusion that God is petty, sexually confused, sadistic, and ultimately evil – and therefore has no likelihood of existing.
Even granting all that Dawkins asks us to grant, we are confronted with a problem. In arguing that God is evil and therefore should not be believed to exist, Dawkins appeals to a standard of right and wrong that spans time and circumstance (otherwise we could dismiss the carnage of the Old Testament under the collective moralities of cultures long ago).
The question then rises, where does the moral standard that Dawkins is beating over God’s head come from? He has only his own subjective opinions or the collective opinions of others – opinions which may change with time or circumstance – to draw on. If this is the case, though, his beliefs about morality are purely subjective and deserve as much weight anyone else (even those who disagree!).
If true moral standards (i.e. standards that those in the past can be held to) exist, then where do they come from? Perhaps perceiving the need for some justification for moral claims, Dawkins poses a few examples of enlightenment thinkers (Kant, Bacon, etc.) as foundations for rational, atheistic moral standards (never mind that many of the same thinkers were deists or even Christian). However, no real justification for accepting a universal code of ethics is provided – the reader is simply expected to unquestioningly buy into Dawkins’ personal moral beliefs.
As Lewis argues in The Abolition of Man, universal moral judgments can only be passed by appealing to a moral law that exists outside of the opinions of men. Furthermore, this moral law is reliant on a moral lawgiver – simply appealing to nature won’t do. Without some kind of supernatural moral law-giver to appeal to, Dawkins is a man with no rational justification for why anyone should listen to his claims of moral superiority over the God of the Old Testament. His moral intuitions may be correct – but he has unfortunately chosen a worldview in which none of his moral claims can be sustained. Dawkins has unintentionally leveled his own argument. In attempting to refute the existence of God by appealing to a moral argument, Dawkins has destroyed his only basis for making legitimate moral claims.
Furthermore, it seems that by attempting to take the moral high ground against the God of Christianity, Dawkins accidentally presents one of the strongest evidences for the existence of a God (though admittedly not the Christian God). Dawkins may have delivered a blow to a caricature of the God of the Old Testament, but only with the help of a less defined God. The average man or woman knows that there is right and wrong, and unless we are willing to deny all moral decision-making and the existence of evil, then we need to leave room for a way to make legitimate moral judgments. Maybe Dawkins should take a moment to consider why he can make moral judgments at all. He might just find that, in order to defeat the evil God of Christianity, he needs to appeal to more than just his own moral intuitions: he needs a real Lawgiver to back him up.