(Go here to read the first part of my treatment of chapter seven, “The ‘Good’ Book and the Changing Moral Zeitgeist.”)
Dawkins makes at least two main points in this chapter. First, “Those who wish to base their morality literally on the Bible have either not read it or not understood it” (p. 237). It is that contention that I talk about in my previous post on this chapter. His statement must be accepted if one takes a “flat Bible” approach in one’s reading and interpretation. Even in many of those Old Testament narratives and laws that offend modern sensibilities we can find lasting truth if we are looking for it. Most importantly, I maintain that one cannot find a more meaningful and more enduring ethic than that taught by Jesus and lived by him. It is to the shame of us Christians that most of us do such a lousy job of living it out that few people can see its power at work in today’s world. (To be fair, even Dawkins has positive things to say about Jesus.)
The fact is, though, that nobody actually takes much of the Bible literally, even if they claim that they do. Not even Christians base their morality on the literal interpretation of the Bible, which fact leads into Dawkins’ second main point in this chapter. He says, “All I am trying to establish is that we do not, as a matter of fact, derive our morals from Scripture. Or, if we do, we pick and choose among the scriptures for the nice bits and reject the nasty” (p. 243). I agree that most people do not derive their morals from the Bible. I would go further to say that if Christians would actually derive their morals from the example of Jesus and from the ethical teachings of his parables and the Sermon on the Mount, we would really be a revolutionary force in the world.
Dawkins has real problems with one of the central tenets of the New Testament, namely the teaching about the atonement and especially the sacrificial death of Jesus. Indeed, he calls it “sado-masochism” and comments, “God incarnated himself as a man, Jesus, in order that he should be tortured and executed in atonement for the hereditary sin of Adam. Ever since Paul expounded this repellent doctrine, Jesus has been worshipped as the redeemer of our sins” (p. 252). Dawkins goes on to ask, “If God wanted to forgive our sins, why not just forgive them, without having himself tortured and executed…? (p. 253). It should be said that Dawkins builds some of his case on what is almost surely a misconception of what the doctrine of original sin really means; no doubt some folks think of it as being passed on biologically but it is probably true that many more of us think of it as being passed on spiritually and socially. One thing’s for sure: something is wrong with us and we have not yet evolved beyond the capacity for utter evil. It strikes me that, for an educated man and a person familiar with the ways of the world, Dawkins is incredibly naïve about the cost of forgiveness. Moreover, his characterization of the atonement is way off-base; the self-sacrifice of God in Christ is an extraordinary action of grace and love that shows just how far God will go to make things right between him and us. Such talk by me, of course, assumes that there is a God and that we need things to be made right with him.
I plan to conclude my discussion with Chapter 7 later this week.