[To read my two previous posts on this chapter, go here and here.]
In the latter parts of this chapter Dawkins tries to answer the question of how, if our morality is not grounded in religion and especially in our holy books, we decide between right and wrong.
Along the way, Dawkins says that there is a generally agreed upon ethic by which most people live. He furthermore says that some elements of that ethic are found in holy books but they are found alongside teachings by which modern people would not want to live. Furthermore, he says, “the holy books do not supply any rules for distinguishing the good principles from the bad” (p. 263). I don’t know enough about other holy books to say, but I must disagree with Dawkins when it comes to the Bible. Most thinking Christians are “red letter disciples”; they understand that the life and teachings of Jesus, because he is the ultimate revelation of God in history, provide the window through which everything, including the teachings of the Bible, are to be interpreted.
Dawkins approvingly offers a set “New Ten Commandments” that he found on an atheist website (pp. 263-264). I have to agree that those ten principles are ones that I try to live by. What is missing from them, though, is a sense of transcendence, wonder, and awe. Now, Dawkins would probably say that the “rules” given in the biblical Ten Commandments do not evoke those senses, either. Taken in their overall biblical context, though, they remind us that there is something (people of faith would say “someone”) that is far beyond us and that has expectations for us that are for our ultimate good. The more I think about it, the more I come to believe that this sense of the possibility of God, of the possibility of elements of life and love that extend beyond what our physical senses can perceive, is the main thing missing from Dawkins’ approach to life. I think that fundamentalist Christians (and fundamentalists of other faiths) are wrong in their negative stance toward science. I also think that a scientist who accepts no possibility of God and thus has no access to faith is cheating himself or herself out of a God-given dimension of life.
Dawkins’ main point in this chapter is that the developed and developing morality that we find among the people in the world does not require a religious explanation. He speculates that the progressions that we have seen in morality can be explained by such things as education, communication, and great leaders. He’s not sure, but he is convinced that it does not come from religion because, he maintains, modern morality has progressed so far beyond that of religions and their holy books.
Dawkins misunderstands the role that Scripture plays in the life and thought of an (and I wish I could come up with another, less “superior” sounding word) enlightened modern Christian. Such a Christian understands that in some ways the Bible is bound by the cultures that produced it. Such a Christian does not maintain that every word of the Bible carries equal authority; I accord more authority to the “pray for your enemies” teaching of Jesus than I do to the “don’t eat catfish” rule of the Pentateuch. Such a Christian understands that while the Bible is authoritative, the Lord continues to work and to lea and to guide so that progression can still be made on the moral and ethical front that can take us even beyond the teachings of the Bible but still be in line with the teachings of the Bible.
I offer one example. Dawkins says that we have an “increased understanding that each of us shares a common humanity with members of other races and with the other sex—both deeply unbiblical ideas that come from biological science, especially evolution” (p. 271). As Dawkins says about Christians, one wonders if he has actually read the Bible. In its first two chapters it teaches that all people come form the same stuff and that both men and women are made in the image of God. In its third chapter the Bible makes clear that the uneasy and sometimes negative relationship between the sexes is the result not of God’s perfect plan but of human sin which finally means that such is part of our struggle in the world. The New Testament went far beyond its cultural milieu in its presentation of how men and women are to relate. Jesus had female disciples. The early church had to balance its ideal that in Christ women and men are equal with the practical concern of not leaping so far ahead that its witness would be ignored. But the principles were in place that would lead to full equality. It is true that some Christians and churches deal with that but, again, that is part of the struggle of being in the world. Dawkins is much too general in his statements in this area.
We must grant that religion is a source of conflict and of some of the evil that takes place in the world. That is the fault of the adherents, not of the religions themselves. Here I stand: if Christians would take seriously their obligation to live by the life and teachings of Jesus, which reveal the highest morality of all, we would be a force for nothing but good in the world. That won’t happen because we’re sinners, but we sure could do better and thereby disarm Dawkins and others at least in this part of the battle.