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.



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§ 8 Responses to The Evil God of the Old Testament: A Problematic Argument for Atheism

  • Abby says:

    If you recall from the debate between Doug Wilson and Christopher Hitchens, your argument is essentially Wilson’s ultimate critique of Hitchen’s logic. Their debate is also summed up in “Is Christianity Good for the World?” You’re right to point out that you can’t argue from a shared standard of morality without acknowledging the origin of that standard.
    That being said, I think Dawkins would respond like any good evolutionist by saying that morality has evolved over time, as a sort of survival tactic. I just read a chapter from Charles Darwin’s “The Descent of Man,” which helped me to understand how an atheist could explain morality. You should check it out. I don’t think Darwin is right, but I think trying to argue about morality with atheists might not lead you anywhere constructive. Too many moderns value morality merely for its usefulness in maintaining social order, and so they will consistently and adamantly agree with you that it’s “good.” It’s simply too convenient to think of ourselves as being accountable to Someone when we can explain morality in terms of cognitive psychology and Freud’s religion complex.
    Also, I think there is more to Dawkins’ overall argument than his criticism of the old testament God. David Bently Hart critiques The God Delusion in general, saying it is simply bad science. His comments are also worth checking out.
    Lastly, I think Dawkins is correct to point out that if our own God cannot hold Himself to His own moral standards, He is at best not worth believing in. His apparently Machiavellian actions don’t necessarily disprove His existence, but if He did act in a way that contradicted His own law of love, then our dependence on Him should rightly be called into question. Of course, I have faith that he wasn’t being inconsistent with His law, but at face value God does seem like a genocidal maniac. You can’t really expect Dawkins to be a good theologian in that respect, not that his lack of biblical prowess gives him the right to go defacing God whenever he sees fit.
    Anyway, I think despite his mistaken claims about God, Dawkins makes a good point that hypocrisy in leaders is intolerable, and it deems a leader and any law He writes as fundamentally untrustworthy or at least questionable.
    Keep writing about Dawkins! It’s interesting. And I can actually understand it for the most part (the stock market is unintelligible to me). 🙂
    – Abby

  • Matthias says:

    I appreciate you taking the time to give a thoughtful response. It is true, “The God Delusion” isn’t summed up in the ‘angry OT God’ argument – this was written in response to one specific chapter.

    With respect to Dawkins’ giving a response to moral obligation or authority drawing from evolutionary theory, I think I’d reply that it’s very much beside the point. The problem with Dawkins making moral claims isn’t that he doesn’t have some explanation for why we think moral thoughts. The evolutionary theory does propose that moral feelings are a result of the utility of helping others (with the result of ourselves being helped), but the theory can be critiqued on a deeper level. No atheistic ethical theory (that I am aware of) can justify why a utilitarian moral is obligatory.

    For example, why does another human deserve to obligate me to his or her utility (happiness)? The atheistic model has no rational argument for the claim that human life has any inherent value at all, and so ultimately any given action cannot be evaluated based on whether it is just or injust, but on whether or not it increases utility as defined in an evolutionary framework.

    All that to say, if an atheist responds that morality is useful under an evolutionary framework, my response would be, “why am I as an individual obligated to care about your grandiose sentiments of evolution and human advancement?” An evolutionary framework doesn’t solve the problem in any way, it only raises the question as to why the advancement of the human race is good, why I should care about anyone else, and how any of this can obligate me to act in a way that doesn’t seem immediately appealing to me.

    With regards to the hypocrisy of leaders, that really strikes at the heart of what I’d like to communicate through this. Dawkins can through his book make an effective (if strawman) argument against following the Christian God. The problem is, in claiming that the Christian God is wrong in violating humanity, Dawkins must call on the aid of (at the very least) a deism of some sort. And if I understand correctly, “The God Delusion” isn’t just trying to disprove the God of Christianity or Islam. Through the book, Dawkins is arguing against any sort of God, and for a sort of materialistic, closed system universe. What I’m arguing is that if Dawkins argues for such a system, he cannot attempt to bring moral considerations on to his side because they presuppose the existence of the deism he is trying to disprove.
    What do you think?

    P.S. You should look into the stock market. It is way cool and way fun.

  • Cory Harris says:

    I am not the most suited person to this conversation, as my own moral standpoint tends to be less enlightened then that of Dawkins, but it seems to me that Dawkins’ claims to an amoral God can only be made in regards to the God’s own moral system. Any argument about God, or any god, sinning or making a bad moral judgement in a universal system is preposterous; God cannot be considered human. As an animal cannot be “evil” so neither could a god, except in regards to breaking moral codes that it set for itself. The Old Testament God that he refers to, for instance, makes a distinction between wars and peace, and jews and gentiles, and so could only be considered hypocritical if he demanded that what he lays down specifically as sins are to be committed.
    The argument that god’s inherently cause human strife is the optimisitic view of someone who is narrowly looking at a larger problem. If there were no God or gods, as he claims, then humans are making up projections to justify actions that they know are wrong (if we accept that his morals are essentially shared by most people.) If they are simply using religion as an excuse to do what they want anyway, they won’t stop doing it because the excuse is wrong. Looking at the slave trade in the US over the last 300 years, it is obvious that justificaions are easy to find. The native’s barbarity and paganism was used as an initial justification, and this was extended to Africans imported as slaves. Once these slaves had been converted and clothed like westerners, they were then said to be unable to take care of themselfs and that slavery was a service in their favor. When other related cultures (the North and Europe) had no economic reasons to continue slavery and thus no need for justification slavery emancipation was forced upon slave cultures. It is thus now “evil” to have slaves, because it is not economically valuable to the dominant cultures. There is thus no inherent morals, as Dawkins sees them, but just a string of circumstances that require justifying. So, Dawkins’ argument that God is a source of great evil in the world is inherently false; people are a source of great evil in the world, and gods are at worst (in an atheist world) a justification for already desired action. As racism to this day in the US shows, no attempt at removing the moral justifications for an action will have a long term impact unless underlying causes (psycological need to be better then others, desire for wealth and a livelihood, etc) are removed.

  • Rich Osborne-Morse says:

    As stated above, I’d resolve away from the logic circle issue. Aside from the fact that there is an (albeit paper thin) counter for that argument, if you go there, you’re guilty of resorting to the same vernacular trickery that Dawkins employs. We all know that Dawkins is certain that God exists. There’s a youtube video where a student asks Dawkins “What if your wrong?” and the fangs come out. He skillfully assaults her with a condescending, though eloquent, series of words. Of course, he fails to respond to the question. But his parishioners don’t require an answer to that question. If he didn’t believe in God, he would be able to remove himself from himself and respond like an adult to a hypothetical question. This is the nature of science, of reason. But he is so persuaded that there is a higher power, that he cannot even face this eventuality without fear, masked effectively as venom. Dawkins is a child in rebellion. A clever child who files for Emancipation and throws a tantrum when posed the question “Where will you live?”

  • pastorjeffcma says:

    In my interactions with atheists I have often referred to “insert mean god comment here.” For the argument will inevitably come to that. My experience with the atheist/morality question goes in one of two directions. 1. The atheist tries to take the discussion to the level of acting in moral ways–“an atheist can be just as moral as a theist.” A point I will always concede–I would go as far as to say there are certain atheists that act more moral than some theists. However, that is not the question at hand. 2. When forced to confront the reality of a “transcendent morality,” evolutionary cause (was that oxymoronic?) is used as what is, obviously, the ultimate answer. Of course, when pressed as to how such a mechanism brought about, not moral actions, but morality itself–the argument tends to self destruct. By the way I am enjoying a lot of what you write.

  • Steven Beech says:

    While I can understand and agree with the problem in Dawking argument. Tearing down the presentation does nothing to the idea. If you prove Dawkins as a immature and venmous speaker, someone else will raise the same points as him in a more pleasent manner. So instead of disproving the speaker, discuss some of the content and agree or disagree with that. Does God wipe out entire nations in the Old Testament? Yes. Is that inconsistent with God’s character? No, the bible is a description of the Christian God’s character. If we believe in this God, than we accept that he had good reason for his actions. Is the genocide of nations inconsistent with what God tells us to do? Possibly, does God tell us to wipe out entire nations? or did God tell Israel to do so? For a better explenation we need to learn to work within the context of each passage, something that many atheists do not bother to do. (Soapbox) In the same way that holding up a picket sign that says “God hates Fags” with some obscure reference to Leviticus hurts the Christian cause, setting up websites and writing books in which you qoute the King James version followed up by your own sarcasm as an explenation of the verse hurts atheism.

    When did study stop being an all ecompassing process?

    • Chris says:

      I find it hard to imagine any context in which genocide becomes morally acceptable. These tales of blood and murder offer no interpretation or excuse that will rationalize them away to a modern mind.

      One is left claiming that a person can’t know the mind of a god. Its a horrible intellectual cop-out of an argument and one that still leaves this Jehovah character looking mighty suspect.

  • beckyzz says:

    None of the bible patriarchs or jesus ever existed and their ‘stories’ are the hidden lives of the blood thirsty Hyksos Shepherd Kings who were kicked out of Egypt. They are the ‘synagogue of satan’ the book of Revelation speaks in the letters to the seven churches. The ones who falsely claim to be jews but are liars. The same shit that is going on now was going on beck then but the pathetic herd refuses to even consider they are being had. Claiming throughout their rotten history that they are jews is what has given them a place of power and control in this stupid world of morons. You have no idea what you worship. The Rothschilds and zionists bankers are your gods. Read the works of Ralph Ellis and wake the hell up.

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