It is fairly common to people complain about how blood-thirsty the God of the Old Testament seems to be. Or, at the very least, the violence in the Old Testament gives people pause. But when it comes to Jesus and the New Testament, well, who doesn’t love Jesus? Gandhi patterned his life after Jesus, and even most nonbelievers still will say things like, “The problem with Christianity is that not enough Christians actually live like Christ.”
Well, if you’ve stayed with me into this “part 18” of my analysis of Dawkins, it shouldn’t come as too much as a surprise to find out that Dawkins has a problem with the New Testament.
The Atonement: How Nasty!
Specifically, Dawkins is repulsed by the notion of atonement. He writes, “New Testament theology adds a new injustice, topped off by a new sadomasochism whose viciousness even the Old Testament barely exceeds. It is, when you think about it, remarkable that a religion should adopt an instrument of torture and execution as its sacred symbol, often worn around the neck” (285).
Apparently Dawkins doesn’t quite get why a cross became the defining symbol of Christianity. Apparently, he thinks that the early Christians just chose a cross because they were sadomasochists. No, the reason why the New Testament talks about crucifixion is because Jesus of Nazareth actually was crucified, and the reason they eventually adopted the cross as Christianity’s defining symbol was because of the Gospel message that Jesus had been resurrected and had overcome death—the very instrument that was meant to kill him became the means by which he overcame death. That’s the message: Jesus has defeated death and we need not be afraid of death, even death on a cross.
As for the actual atonement itself, Dawkins writes, “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 all our sins.” (286)
“I have described atonement, the central doctrine of Christianity, as vicious, sadomasochistic and repellent. We should also dismiss it as barking mad, but for its ubiquitous familiarity which has dulled our objectivity. If God wanted to forgive our sins, why not just forgive them, without having himself tortured and executed in payment—thereby, incidentally, condemning remote future generations of Jews to pogroms and persecution as ‘Christ-killers’: did that hereditary sin pass down in the semen too?” (287)
There are just too many things wrong in those two quotes to cover adequately. Virtually everything Dawkins says betrays a willful ignorance of Christian doctrine and theology.
First, the Christian teaching is not that “God incarnated himself as a man.” Christianity does not teach that Jesus was “God in a man costume.” The teaching of the dual-nature of Christ is a bit more complicated than that.
Secondly, the concept of “hereditary sin” is essentially the later doctrine of Original Sin that was developed out of some of Augustine’s writings. It simply was not taught by the early church in the first four centuries. The famous passage of Romans 5:12-21, in which Paul contrasts Adam and Christ is not arguing for some idea of “original sin.” Paul’s point is that, just as Adam sinned in Genesis 3, everyone sins in his/her own way, and that brings about death to everyone, because everyone, like Adam, sins. Christ’s work, therefore, not only cancels death, but it opens the door to righteousness and a transformed, superabundant life that overrides death.
Thirdly, Christ was worshipped as the savior and redeemer of mankind within the first moments that the first followers encountered him after the resurrection. Such a concept was not “made up” by Paul.
Fourthly, Dawkins’ question regarding “Why didn’t God just forgive us without all this nasty killing business?” is not a question that deals with reality. “Why did God do it this way?” is really a silly question. The early Christians were simply explaining what actually happened and what that meant for the world. Dawkins’ objection on the grounds that the way it was done doesn’t strike him as “elegant” or “noble” enough really is irrelevant. One should accept or reject a historical/theological claim based on whether or not one thinks it actually happened, not simply because he doesn’t like the idea.
The Christian Taliban?
In the middle of Dawkins rant against the New Testament, he lets slip something that should strike any clear-thinking person as ludicrous. He writes, “With notable exceptions such as the Afghan Taliban and the American Christian equivalent, most people pay lip service to the same broad liberal consensus of ethical principles” (298).
That’s right, Richard Dawkins thinks there is a moral equivalent to American Christianity and the Taliban. Now, I am no fan of ultra-conservative fundamentalism, but for the life of me I cannot imagine anyone honestly thinking that Jerry Falwell or Ken Ham is as dangerous as the Taliban. Such a comparison is simply irresponsible, inflammatory and ludicrous. Where do we have reports of Christians killing people for listening to music, or beheading people for adultery at the local high school football games, or forcing men to grow beards on pain of death? Nowhere.
Early on in The God Delusion, Dawkins said, “I shall not go out of my way to offend, but nor shall I don kid gloves to handle religion any more gently than I would handle anything else” (50). I think it is safe to say that not only does Dawkins go out of his way to offend, but he goes out of his way to mischaracterize, misrepresent, mislead, and demonize.
The Atheist Ten Commandments?
In a particularly fascinating passage, Dawkins fancies himself a little bit of an atheist Moses, and proceeds to give forth a new set of Ten Commandments. He initially takes the list from an atheist website:
- Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you
- In all things, strive to cause no harm
- Treat your fellow human beings, your fellow living things, and the world in general with love, honesty, faithfulness, and respect
- Do not overlook evil or shrink from administering justice, but always be ready to forgive wrongdoing freely admitted and honestly regretted
- Live life with a sense of joy and wonder
- Always seek to be learning something new
- Test all things; always check your ideas against the facts, and be ready to discard even a cherished belief if it does not conform to them
- Never seek to censor or cut yourself off from dissent; always respect the right of others to disagree with you
- Form independent opinions on the basis of your own reason and experience; do not allow yourself to be led blindly by others
- Question everything Dawkins, though, can’t help but add a few more, so here are his personal four additions:
- Enjoy your own sex life (so long as it damages nobody else) and leave others to enjoy theirs in private whatever their inclinations, which are none of your business
- Do not discriminate or oppress on the basis of sex, race or (as far as possible) species
- Do not indoctrinate your children. Teach them how to think for themselves, how to evaluate evidence, and how to disagree with you
- Value the future on a timescale longer than your own
I will not take the time to go through every single one of these. For the most part, I don’t know many people who would disagree with these sentiments. Hey, you should question things; you should live a life with a sense of joy and wonder. You get the picture, it is good advice.
But what Dawkins and his cited atheist website fails to grasp is what the purpose of the Ten Commandments—or more properly, the entire Torah—really was. The Ten Commandments weren’t a list of “helpful life hints” one might see on Oprah. They were part of a larger Torah that was essentially the constitutional basis of law for the newly formed nation of Israel. The Torah wasn’t just a “list of things that are good advice.” It was Israel’s legal code.
To get an idea as to how misguided and silly Dawkins’ criticism of the Ten Commandments are, and how inane his “Atheist Ten Commandments” sounds, imagine that Dawkins came across the United States Constitution, but didn’t know what it was. Instead of doing some research in order to find out what it was, he simply wrote a book, criticizing how “weird” the Constitution was, and proceeded to critique the Constitution in the same way he critiqued the Ten Commandments:
That whole “United States Constitution” thing is just so stupid! All those amendments and talk of different “houses” in the government—what’s up with that? It’s all so WEIRD! And what’s up with all those laws that deal with sin sin sin? What a downer! Let me give a different constitution! Ummm…(1) Smell flowers…they’re pretty! (2)Smile at people…it makes them happy! (3) Admit when you’re wrong! (4) Search for answers! (5) Be all that you can be!
As you can see, such a “list,” although good ideas, would be a horrible basis on which to build a legal code. So Dawkins’ “new Ten Commandments” may sound nice, but they completely miss the point regarding what the original Torah was for.
This is precisely the recurring problem with Richard Dawkins, as well as the New Atheist Movement as a whole. If you’re looking for cheap, uninformed vitriol, then the New Atheist Movement is a good place to look. But if you want to actually understand something about the Bible, and Christianity in general, you’d best look elsewhere.