Response to Global Atheism Conference - the contemporary case against God: “goodlessness”

Part five of Greg Clarke's series on the 2010 Global Atheism Conference

Perhaps the most interesting development among the New Atheists is their attack on God’s goodness, their claim that ‘God Is Not Great’. Richard Dawkins begins chapter three of The God Delusion with a fantastic rhetorical flourish, so potent and now famous that you can hear him read it all over YouTube:

  “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic-cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filiacidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully”.1  

It’s a great sentence, but a deeply unfair portrait of the God of the Hebrew Bible. Nevertheless, it raises the stakes: even if there is a God, is God good? Let me make a few observations.

First, to paint a portrait of God in this way is to not take the Bible in its own terms, but to impose your own reading on it. So much of the error in atheistic reading of the Bible occurs because they fail to recognise the unfolding narrative of God’s relationship with the world, first through the nation of Israel, then in Jesus Christ, and then spreading globally as the news of salvation was made known to the ends of the earth.

The Bible is, of course, not a single book, but a library of books, of all kinds of literature from various cultures and time periods. To pluck out sections, as all the New Atheists do, and say “This is God!” or “Look at this law!” or “How could God say that?”, is the most amateurish attitude to scriptural hermeneutics I’ve seen in a long time. Do they think Bible readers haven’t noticed some of the confronting stories and teachings of the Old Testament? Do they pay no attention to the people who spend their lives training in biblical languages, history, cultural study and theology in order to give books such as the Bible an intelligent and honest examination? One reviewer of The God Delusion, Professor Terry Eagleton, wrote wittily: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology”.2

There is often, too, a basic assumption that whenever a tale of violence, degradation, abuse or trauma is told in the Bible, it is being approved of and commended. This could not be further from the truth; on the contrary, much of the Hebrew Bible is a record of the disobedience of ‘God’s people’, whose lives were wretched and whose societies were falling apart as a result of their unwillingness to live in the manner God had commanded. It is no mere appendix that the final verse of the Book of Judges reads: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Lest it be misunderstood, the writer is not commending the Israelites for their eyesight.

Second, the evil done by the followers of a God is not an argument against the goodness of that God. In our time, one of the great evils that has come to light among those who identify as Christians is child sexual abuse, and we are probably all too painfully aware of situations where people of trust have let us, or those we love, down in this most horrific way. All the Church can do in response to this is maximally repent—to apologise over and over again, to attempt to right the wrongs where possible, and do everything in our power to prevent such things happening.

We have to name evil as evil, and say never again.

But you can’t judge the truth of a religion on the failures of its worst followers. You might conclude that they weren’t really followers at all (because “by their fruits they shall be known”, to quote not only Jesus but also, recently, the Premier of NSW in our state parliament!). Or you might conclude they are followers who have failed badly, and need to seek forgiveness and start again. But you can’t use any particular failings to argue that the religion itself is worthless, or the God of that religion is not good, especially if it is clear that the behaviour is contrary to the religion’s teachings, and that there is evidence of great good being done by some of its adherents as well.

You can’t mount an argument against God by finding convenient anecdotes of the worst failings of his followers.

Much of the New Atheist writing is an attack on the worst excesses of religion—and one which I support. Terrible things are done in the name of many religions, and I don’t for a moment want to defend them. But that isn’t the whole story. You can’t mount an argument against God by finding convenient anecdotes of the worst failings of his followers.

Third, and finally, the very things a New Atheist perceives as good have often derived from religious tradition, sometimes specifically from the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

Here we come to a significant point, because there is a good argument that the New Atheists saw off the branch on which they sit when it comes to questions of morality.

In The God Delusion, Dawkins commends a set of ‘Ten Commandments’ for living well, which include “Enjoy your own sex life (so long as it damages nobody elses)”, “Do not discriminate or oppress on the basis of sex, race or (as far as possible) species”, “Do not indoctrinate your children” and “Value the future on a timescale longer than your own”. It’s a fascinating set of principles, revealing a certain range of concerns, mostly to do with individual liberty. The new church of ethical atheism that Dawkins is promoting is one with a fairly clear emphasis on freedom, on self-determination, and on a kind of humility about human existence.

Dawkins’ view seems to be that once you remove God from the picture, an obvious and generally-agreed-upon set of human principles remains by which to live—a “consensual ethics” that “any ordinary, decent person today would come up with”.3 Most theists would have some sympathy with this, since we believe that the world is created in a certain way—changing and evolving, but not completely malleable—such that there are some common moral positions we would call ‘natural’, because they are of the nature of the created universe. However, some of the principles suggested by Dawkins seem far from ‘natural’ and much more like a set of beliefs manufactured for our times (he would call them, in the language of his book, ‘cultural memes’). If we carried out a survey, would the majority of people agree that we should not discriminate on the basis of species?

There certainly seems to be a naivety to this proposal, or at least a romantic notion of human capacity. Where is the evidence that human beings would behave this way in an atheistic world? If anything, as Alister McGrath spells out in detail in his book The Twilight of Atheism, the social and moral record of atheism is far from clean. From the masochistic sexual abuses imagined and carried out by the Marquis de Sade to the oppressive politics of God-banning totalitarian regimes of Pol Pot, Stalin and Mao Tse Tung, atheistic beliefs have often led to immoral behaviours—at least, it is not fair to say that atheism has a better social record than do theisms.

Those who are ethical atheists live a peculiar life: they have set standards for their own or their community’s behaviour, but it is very unclear how this behaviour is to be measured. Who is the judge? Is there one? What does misbehaviour mean under such conditions? Can you really require any particular behaviour from anyone else? Or are you just sitting back and hoping for the best? It seems unlike that the atheist utopian vision of a common morality will come to fruition.

As theologian Oliver O’Donovan writes, “All four aspects of liberal society—freedom, mercy, natural right and openness to free speech—have consistently proved more difficult to realise in effect than to acknowledge in principle”.4

O’Donovan is a Christian theologian, but he is not alone in thinking Christianity has a more realistic moral vision for society than atheistic wishful thinking about human nature. Professor Terry Eagleton is no Christian, but he has written very critically about the New Atheists, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, whom he amusingly amalgamates as ‘Ditchkins’. He has, at the same time, written very powerfully about the realistic outlook that Christianity brings to the world. In his witty book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, this old-school British Marxist points out that Christianity is far more honest about human behaviour than is the New Atheism:

  Christianity believes that a great deal of human wickedness is historically caused, and can be tackled by political action. But it also thinks it wildly implausible, given the scale and persistence of human viciousness, to think that this is all there is to the matter…There has been no human culture to date in which virtue has been predominant. Some of the reasons for this are alterable, while others are probably not…Yet at the same time Christian faith is absurdly, outrageously more hopeful than liberal rationalism, with its apparently unhinged belief that not only is the salvation of the human species possible but that, contrary to all we read in the newspapers, it has in principle already taken place.5  

The atheistic approach to morality seems not to take seriously the history of moral ideas. The moral utopianism of Dawkins is far less realistic than the call for humbled sinners to follow the way of Jesus.

Dr Greg Clarke is Director of CPX

1. Richard Dawkin’s, The God Delusion, Bantam Press, 2006, p.31.

2. Terry Eagleton, “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching”, London Review of Books, 19th October 2006, p.32.

3. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p.264.

4. Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations, CUP, Cambridge, 1999), p.270.

5. Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, Yale University Press, 2009, p.48.