“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, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”


Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion p.31.

One of the reasons that the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence exists is to help Christians to think through statements such as this. And although few believers would express themselves as acerbically as Richard Dawkins, many—if they were absolutely honest—have a sneaking sympathy for the sentiment he expresses.

In The God Delusion, Professor Dawkins lines up a wide and diverse series of arguments to attempt to prove that not only does God not exist, but that the Judeo-Christian God, if he did exist, would be regarded by every right-thinking person as a moral monster. His arguments are panoptic; straying into psychological, historical, ethical, scientific and literary territory. His book is an impressive attempt at a total vitiation of the case for the existence of God.

I have opinions on many parts of his thesis, but I will remain within my remit; this is the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence. In this blog post, therefore, I will attempt to address the specific parts of his book that relate to scripture. Does the Bible—the Old Testament in particular—really form the basis for a morally bankrupt religion?

First, I will attempt to summarise Professor Dawkins’ argument. Here I am mainly referring to chapter 7: ‘The “Good” Book and the Changing Moral Zeitgeist’ (pp.237-278).

Essentially, the case that Dawkins is making in this chapter is that scripture does not, contrary to what is often claimed, form the basis for most of our ethics. And nor should it, he says. Scripture might be able to influence our ethics in one of two ways: direct instruction or moral example. But both the direct instructions of the Bible and the examples it promulgates result in an obnoxious code of conduct that is no morality at all. And therefore, in actual practice we don’t derive our ethics in this way.

When believers encounter a story or an instruction that they don’t like, they dismiss it as ahistorical, Dawkins tells us. And this decision is entirely arbitrary, ‘a matter of personal decision’ (p.238). They pick and choose on idiosyncratic grounds. In fact, a failure to be selective in this way results in some truly appalling actions, such as the claim by televangelist Pat Robinson that Hurricane Katrina was God’s judgment upon a lesbian comedian who lived in New Orleans. (In actual fact, whether Pat Robinson ever made such a claim is disputed, as Dawkins acknowledges in a footnote.)

Dawkins then offers multiple examples from the Old Testament of stories that encourage or promotes violence and misogyny: the ‘appalling’ Flood, the ‘dysfunctional family’ of Lot, the ‘disgraceful story’ of the near-sacrifice of Isaac, the actual sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter, the ‘terrible chapter’ about the golden calf, and the ‘misogynistic ethos’ that underlies the rape of the Levite’s concubine.

Dawkins does concede that the New Testament reveals a more advanced ethical system, and affirms the moral superiority of Jesus over Moses. However, he describes the Pauline model of atonement as ‘vicious, sado-masochistic, repellent’.

He then selects a major theme in both Testaments: the in-group morality/ out-group hostility framework that it contains. He shows how this forms the basis for hate-speech, and describes a psychological experiment where children were seen to be influenced towards hateful interpretations of scripture by their religious upbringing. He concedes that in-group loyalty and out-group hostility is not exclusively a religious phenomenon, but argues that religion forms the basis for most such incidents, partly because of the early labelling of children (as Protestant or Catholic, for example), the existence of sectarian schools, and taboos within religious communities against ‘marrying out’.

As a conclusion of the argument offered, Dawkins reiterates his starting point, that we do not obtain our ethical values from the Bible. Enlarging on this, he shows how moral values have changed over time, and makes some interesting suggestions about the ways in which they seem to evolve.

He concludes the chapter with a discursus which is his response to a challenge he often receives; that Stalin and Hitler were atheists and (by implication) that their crimes were the result of their atheism. Since this part of the chapter does not directly relate to scripture, I have not addressed it in detail below, but I will comment here that Dawkins’ assertion that atheists ‘do not do evil things in the name of atheism’ would be disputed by many who suffered religious persecution under the communist regimes of Eastern Europe.

I begin my response to Professor Dawkins chapter by agreeing that the Bible, and the Old Testament in particular, presents a number of ethical challenges to the modern reader. This is one of the main reasons why the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence has been created. I agree with his critique of those who cheaply ascribe natural disasters to divine judgment upon human immorality (have they not read Job, or Luke 13:1-5?) I agree, and am on record as saying, that the careless use of some Old Testament stories presented without context and as entertainment to children can be damaging and brutalising. (Paynter, H. Dead and Buried? Attending to the Voices of the Victim in the Old Testament and Today (Whitley Lecture 2018).) I share his discomfort at the violent language of some of the old hymns, of which the one he quotes is a particularly egregious example.

Nevertheless, his characterisation of both the nature and extent of the problem that the Old Testament presents is either ill-informed or disingenuous, as it makes no reference to the highly specialised, highly skilled discipline of biblical hermeneutics.

That the ‘flat’, literalist, fundamentalist readings of some biblical texts is unhelpful and potentially dangerous would be conceded by most biblical scholars that I know. But Professor Dawkins is not making fundamentalism the sole object of his criticism. He is characterising these interpretive stances as representative of Christians and Jews (where relevant), and indeed as descriptive of the God that we worship. This is a classic ‘straw man’ argument, where the weakest version of the opponent’s argument is attacked, rather than tackling it in its strongest manifestation.

Scientist though he is, Professor Dawkins is unlikely to be ignorant of the fact that the interpretation of literary texts is a complex and nuanced field; a speciality in the field of humanities. The interpretation of ancient texts is a particular subset of this field. And the interpretation of biblical texts follows exactly these same techniques, to the same standards, and with the same expectation of rigour. (In addition, when reading from a faith perspective, the Christian scholar will add some further, theological, techniques to the standard ones.)

These techniques include, but are not confined to: detailed philological study; comparative readings with other ancient texts; reading with attention to historical context; analysis of likely sources and dating of texts; and ‘literary’ analysis, which includes the careful study of plot, characterisation, poetic devices, rhetorical strategies, discourse analysis, speech patterns, and much else. Professor Dawkins’ critique is levelled at the surface meaning of an English translation (the Authorised Version, widely regarded as being based upon inferior manuscripts compared to more modern translations).

This has led to at least three ways areas in which Professor Dawkins’ reading of the text appears to misunderstand the nature of its communicative act.

First, his assertion that Christians ‘pick and choose which bits of scripture to believe’ (p.238) appears to be ignorant of the complex area of genre analysis. When we pick up and read a modern text, we instantly form an opinion about the type of writing we have in hand. We are unlikely to ask for a porridge recipe from the Goldilocks story; we will not mistake a sports report for a description of a military conflict. When reading ancient texts, such clues are less accessible to us, because of the chronological, cultural and linguistic gaps between us and the text. Nonetheless the clues are present, and the skilled interpreter learns to detect them. So, for example, the highly formulaic telling of the Genesis 1 Creation account, or of the Flood narrative, show that this is not intended to be read as a historical report, but is a theologically rich account, written using stylistic flourish and rhetorical skill. Deciding not to understand this as a literal description of events as seen by an eye-witness does not result from ‘picking and choosing’ but from the competent reading of its genre.

Second, Dawkins does not read the ancient texts in their historical contexts. All of the ancient near-Eastern nations had their foundational myths, and many of them left records of their military conquests and their laws. It is unfair to read the biblical stories of Bronze-Age and Iron-Age societies in comparison with the relatively enlightened ethics of today (for he clearly demonstrates the progression of morality), rather than in comparison with the texts they are contemporaneous with. No doubt Professor Dawkins would respond that this is exactly his point: the texts reflect an ancient and outmoded morality and therefore should be discarded. But texts communicate by asserting difference. It is where they deviate from what is expected that they surprise, and therefore communicate with, their reader. For example, the laws of Hammurabi (in ancient Babylon) allowed triangulation of punishment—such as the rape of a rapist’s wife as punishment for his crime. By contrast, the biblical law of talion—an eye for an eye—is both commensurate (matches the crime) and reciprocal (paid back upon the criminal).

And third, Dawkins appears to be unaware that texts can function at a number of levels, and the ‘plain meaning’ may belie what the text is actually doing. This is best explained using the modern concept of Speech-Act theory. Here, utterances (spoken or written phrases units of communication) have a content (locution), a force (illocution), and an effect (perlocution). The force and effect are partly determined by the content, but also the way and context in which it is delivered. So ‘there is a bull in this field’ has a fixed content, but the force may vary, depending on whether the listener is hoping to purchase the animal, or about to ramble through the field in question.

This is a very powerful tool for understanding the way that texts work, and we often apply it unconsciously in everyday life. Mark Anthony’s repetition of the phrase ‘Brutus is an honourable man’ during his funeral speech for Caesar (in the Shakespeare play of this name) exemplifies this beautifully. At the beginning, the content and force appear to line up—Brutus is an honourable man, and therefore his decision to assassinate Caesar should be regarded as honourable. But by the end of his speech, the force of the utterance has wholly reversed. Now his assertion of exactly the same words implies its own contradiction. Brutus, honourable? Like heck he is!

A good example of Professor Dawkins’ indifference to the speech-act effect of a biblical text is his comments upon the horrific story of the rape of the Levite’s concubine. He rightly identifies the ‘misogynistic ethos’ that drives this ‘chilling’ story (p.241). But he fails to distinguish between the attitude of the characters and their society, and the attitude of the narrator. Elementary literary theory tells us that the voice of the narrator need not correspond with the voice of the characters he portrays. So what is the force of this story? Reading it within its wider textual setting (another elementary feature of literary analysis) shows that it forms part of a wider critique of the society of the day. In other words, the writer is not telling this story to endorse the violent rape; nor is he indifferent to it. His selection of this text demonstrates his concern for the rights of the woman. The action is misogynistic. Its reporting is not.

Having shown thee three areas where Professor Dawkins has shown himself to be unaware of, or indifferent to, the sophisticated reading of biblical texts, I would now like to address the specific claim that he levels against the Bible of championing in-group loyalty and out-group hostility.

I think Dawkins is correct in identifying the clear presence in both Testaments of a bounded group that comprises God’s people. Texts such as Deuteronomy 7:3, which prohibits intermarriage with the Canaanite nations, demonstrate this. A particularly marked and disturbing example is found in Nehemiah and Ezra, where the national response to intermarriage is forced divorce and the expulsion of the foreign women and their children.

But it is also essential to note the surprising counter-currents that exist, and which are all the more striking for their being in distinction to the prevailing ethos. So, in addition to the very familiar (but important) examples of Rahab and Ruth, we should also note that some Egyptians appear to have come out with the Hebrews at the exodus (Exodus 12:38). Inclusion in the nation of Israel is about faith as well blood. Conversely, the story with which Rahab’s is paired (Joshua 7) shows that lack of obedience (and hence of faith) can result in expulsion from the nation.

King David often made common cause with those from the nations surrounding Israel. Uriah, one of his mighty men, was a Hittite; he was also supported by Gittites and Moabites (e.g. 1 Samuel 22:3; 2 Samuel 15:10-23). And then there is the extraordinary moment in Isaiah’s prophecy—set in the context of a judgment oracle against Egypt—where Isaiah envisions the day when Egypt and Assyria (the two arch-enemies of Israel, note) will be co-worshippers along with Israel (Isaiah 19:18-25).

Moving into the New Testament, Dawkins cites with approval John Hartung, who asserts that the extension of the gospel to the Gentiles would have caused Jesus consternation: ‘Jesus would have turned over in his grave if he had known that Paul would be taking his plan to the pigs’ (quoted on p.257). On the contrary, all four gospels show that the invitation was intended to be extended to the Gentiles. Jesus’ interactions with, and stories about, Samaritans are a big clue in this direction. So are his teachings that blood membership of the people of God is not sufficient (John 8:39-47; see also John the Baptist’s similar words in Matthew 3:9). And the mission to the Gentiles is explicit in John 10:16, Matthew 28:19 and Acts 1:8.

While we are discussing the New Testament, I would also wish to challenge Dawkins’ characterisation of propitiatory atonement as ‘barking mad and viciously unpleasant’ (p.253). Now here some Christians would agree with him (I am not among them). But once again he is dismissing with a rhetorical flourish an excessively complex and nuanced set of arguments. What effect does one’s Christology have on the debate? What is the role of representation in the Pauline thought, and how does this relate to Adamic representation in the Old Testament? With regard to these and many other questions I suspect Professor Dawkins neither knows nor cares. It is simply discourteous to dismiss as nonsense and offensive something that has not been considered and understood.

However, the burden of Dawkins’ criticism is that what makes the Bible dangerous is its appropriation as a text of moral instruction, both in its narratives and in its laws.

‘[Abraham’s] patriarchal status renders him only somewhat less likely than God to be taken as a role model. But what modern moralist would wish to follow him?’ (p.241)
‘If we did [get our morals from scripture], we would strictly observe the Sabbath and think it just and proper to execute anybody who chose not to. We would stone to death any new bridge who couldn’t prove she was a virgin, if her husband pronounced himself unsatisfied with her. We would execute disobedient children.’ (p.249-50)

But is the Bible intended to be taken that way? The gospel writers tell us that they are writing for quite another purpose: ‘that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ… and have life in his name’ (John 21:31), and ‘that you may have certainty regarding the things you have been taught’ (Luke 1:4). So much for the New Testament. But the Christian view of the Old Testament is similar. The writer of 2 Timothy suggests refers to it as ‘the sacred writings which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus’ (2 Tim. 3:15).

It would be a very naïve reader of the Old Testament narratives who imagines that any of the characters depicted there offers an unsullied moral example for emulation. But what about the law? Surely there the scriptures address us with a moral imperative? But perhaps not even here. John Walton, in The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest, addresses this subject at length.

The so-called holiness code that contains Leviticus 18-20 is often interpreted as a list of divine demands that constitute God’s mandatory moral standards. Depending on the interpreter, these demands either represent the highest standard of human moral excellence or an unbearable burden designed to be contrasted with the future liberation by Christ. Some of the imperatives are cited by skeptics as evidence of the inherent absurdity of the Bible’s moral system. These interpretations are misguided because the text in context is not intended as a litany of moral instructions.’ (p.89) ‘The Old Testament legal texts do exist for a purpose, but that purpose is not for the formation of moral principles.’ (p.94) ‘The Old Testament’s legal wisdom literature in context is indeed supposed to shape Israelite society, but it is not supposed to provide a set of instructions by which anyone in any place or time can construct God’s ideal society.’ (p.101) ‘If we obeyed the particular instructions of the Old Testament text, we would become good citizens of the ancient Near East. If we obeyed the particular instructions of the New Testament text, we would become good citizens of classical Rome… A good citizen of the ancient or classical world is not a good citizen of the modern world.’ (p.23)

Christians do (should) obtain their ethical steer from the Bible, but it is derived by a far more nuanced process than the simple lifting of verses or laws out of the eighth (or tenth, or twelfth) century before Christ and applying them to the twenty-first century after him. In his assertion that a flat interpretation of ancient laws would be a retrograde step in our morality, I agree with Professor Dawkins. But the conclusions that he draws about the nature of scripture and the God that it represents are by no means persuasive to me.

I began my response to Professor Dawkins’ chapter by agreeing with him that the Old Testament presents some troublesome challenges to the believer who chooses to take them seriously. I am more than willing to listen to (and propose) examples of where this is the case, as part of my own pursuit of a better interpretation of these scriptures which form part of my sacred text. However, the burden of his reasoning has not uncovered the true nature of that challenge. A straw man argument does not help us investigate truth.

Helen Paynter
Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence
January 2019

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