“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.”
So says Richard Dawkins. Obviously, he doesn’t want readers to think he’s on the fence about God as presented in the Old Testament—or at least, how God seems to Dawkins. But if we clean ourselves up after this blast of rhetorical wind, how strong is Dawkins’ case against God?
Dawkins lists a number of objectionable Old Testament scenes, ending with God’s command to massacre the Midianites (31:17-18), Joshua’s putting all of the inhabitants of Jericho to the sword (Josh 6:21), and God’s “rules” for waging holy war in Canaan (Dt 20:10-18). In regard to the last two, he remarks, “the Bible story of Joshua’s destruction of Jericho, and the invasion of the Promised Land in general, is morally indistinguishable from Hitler’s invasion of Poland, or Saddam Hussein’s massacres of Kurds and the Marsh Arabs,” and “Do not think, by the way, that the God character in the story nursed any doubts or scruples about the massacres and genocides that accompanied the seizing of the Promised Land…. [T]he people who lived in the land…should be invited to surrender peacefully. If they refused, all the men were to be killed and the women carried off for breeding.”
Let’s try a little experiment, and play along with Dawkins’ skewed and unfair reading of the Bible. Suppose upon reading his devastating attack on the God of the Old Testament, we would reject the Bible and embrace Dawkins’ atheism—exactly what Dawkins wishes to be the effect on readers. What then? Would we be any better off?
First of all, as he himself admits in his River out of Eden, in coming over to Dawkins’ side, we have thereby embraced a cosmos indifferent to good or evil. As a consequence, we immediately face a dilemma: we have no moral grounds for condemning the actions of God (He doesn’t exist) or the characters in the Bible (good and evil don’t exist). Since God doesn’t exist, there is no reason to work up a froth of indignation against Him, anymore than against the lunkheaded Zeus in Homer’s Iliad.
Yet now another, more amusing problem arises for Dawkins as the champion of Darwinism. It would seem that a good many of the complaints made by Dawkins against the God of the Old Testament could with equal justice be made against natural selection itself. To say the least, that puts himself in a paradoxical position.
If we might put it in an arresting way, many sociologists of religion argue that primitive people tend to fashion their notions of the gods according to the way they experience nature, as nature deified (whether this is true or not, we won’t decide here, but will take it on trust for the purposes of illustration). What would evolution look like if we tried to deify evolution’s principles? Would the Evolution God (EG) be “unjust” in its callous indifference “to all suffering,” and supremely so, for continually picking off the weak and sickly? Would EG be an “unforgiving control-freak,” “megalomaniacal,” and “petty” since (as Darwin stated) “It may metaphorically be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, the slightest variations; rejecting those that are bad, preserving and adding up all that are good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relations to its organic and inorganic conditions of life”? Would EG be “sadomasochistic” in his use of suffering, destruction, and death as the means to create new forms of life? A “capriciously malevolent bully” in his “lacking all purpose” and being “callous”? A “bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser,” “genocidal,” and “racist” in his continually pitting one species population against another in severe struggle, the struggles among humans taking place between tribe and tribe, race and race? And what adjective would describe EG, who uses these deadly struggles as the very vehicle responsible for the upward climb of human evolution?
So we’ve rejected the God of the Old Testament for Dawkins’ atheistic account of evolution, only to find out that many of the traits Dawkins marked as repugnant are ensconced in natural selection (except that now, as a new and even more unfortunate kind of Job, we have no one against whom to complain).
Perhaps Dawkins will fare better in his case against the people of the Old Testament? But now another paradox comes to the fore. On Dawkins’ own grounds, it would be hard to imagine a people who more assiduously pursued a better set of evolutionary strategies for ensuring that its gene pool was carried forward, undiluted by rival tribes and races, than the ancient Jews. They were genetic geniuses!
Think over the above “reprehensible” examples Dawkins provided from the Bible, and then ruminate upon his account of how evolution, including human evolution, works. Dawkins maintains in his Selfish Gene that we may “treat the individual as a selfish machine, programmed to do whatever is best for its genes as a whole” (although, as he makes clear, the invisible level of the struggle between genes in a single individual is, for him, the real level of natural selection and the struggle to survive). The selfish machine works, literally, by gene-o-cide, the destruction and use of other selfish machines, treating them as fodder for its own survival. What, then, is left of Dawkins’ case against the God of the Old Testament? Nothing at all.