Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Tom Gilson reviews The God Delusion

It looks to me as atheists are better off with the likes of Mackie, Flew, and Parsons than they are with Dawkins.


Anonymous said...

I've seen a lot of criticisms of Dawkins' book, but I'm wondering why no-one (so far as I know) has taken Dawkins to task for the following two things (I cut and paste from a book review I wrote for some friends):

Firstly, being dishonest (so it seems) about Richard Swinburne:

Quite a few times in The God Delusion, one comes across mention of the retired Oxford Professor of Philosophy Richard Swinburne; only Dawkins doesn’t mention that Swinburne is a philosopher, but rather calls him “a theologian”. He does this again and again, and even refers to Swinburne’s previous post at Oxford – the Nolloth Professorship of the philosophy of the Christian religion – which he doesn’t name, as “one of Britain’s most prestigious professorships of theology”. (Page 65) It raises the question, why? Why call Swinburne a theologian when he is so clearly a philosopher? He has degrees in philosophy, his work is categorised as philosophy, his post was philosophy. Why then not call him a philosopher? The answer isn’t hard to find. On page 56, after quoting the Cambridge astronomer Martin Rees saying that the question of why anything exists at all is beyond science and lies in the domain of philosophers and theologians, Dawkins says:

“I would prefer to say that if indeed they lie beyond science, they most certainly lie beyond the province of theologians as well (I doubt that philosophers would thank Martin Rees for lumping theologians in with them).”

Dawkins’ reasons for calling Swinburne a “theologian” are clear: he has drawn a line between philosophers and theologians, and insinuated that philosophers look down on theologians in some way; theologians and theology aren’t of the same calibre as philosophers and philosophy, and philosophers wouldn’t want to be lumped together with theologians. So relegating Swinburne from the class of philosophers to that of theologians is a way of denigrating his status (and perhaps protecting us all from the fact – which Dawkins would no doubt regard as rather scandalous – that some distinguished philosophers believe that God exists). Some philosophers are mentioned and said to be philosophers, for instance the late John Mackie, who is also clearly stated to be an atheist. (Page 82)

Secondly, I haven't seen anyone criticise Dawkins on the content of the Bible, even though his knowledge of it is terrible. (Maybe non-one has criticised him on that because, well, there's just too much in his book to criticise; one has to stop somewhere.) But really, someone should take him to task for what he writes. From my review for my friends again:

We have already seen that Dawkins objects that the God of the Old Testament is “racist”. To counter the (largely false) anticipated Christian response that the ethics of the New Testament differ from the Old, he discusses the command to love one’s neighbour as oneself. It is evident that on this topic Dawkins relies almost solely upon an essay by one John Hartung, who is a physician and evolutionary anthropologist. One might wonder why Dawkins doesn’t go to Biblical scholars for help in understanding the teachings of Biblical morality; perhaps they would be too much in the know. According to Dawkins:

“Hartung’s interpretation of the Bible suggests that it offers no grounds for such smug complacency among Christians. Jesus limited his in-group of the saved strictly to Jews, in which respect he was following the Old Testament tradition, which was all he knew. Hartung clearly shows that ‘Thou shalt not kill’ was never intended to mean what we now think it means. It meant, very specifically, thou shalt not kill Jews. And all those commandments that make reference to ‘thy neighbour’ are equally exclusive.” (Page 254)

Well, suppose we grant Dawkins that “neighbour” meant “fellow-Jew”. What follows? Does it follow that Jews in the Old Testament period thought that the lives of non-Jews were worthless, or that they could kill whichever of them they wished? No, it certainly doesn’t. For instance, in the wilderness before taking possession of the Promised Land, the Israelites are told that there are certain groups that they must not harass of provoke to war, for God will not give any of their land to the Israelites (see Deuteronomy 2:4-6, 9, 18-19). We find God saying that some non-Jews are to be killed, and some land is to be taken (the text says because of the sins of the land's inhabitants), but it would be folly to construe this as teaching that Jews were allowed to kill any non-Jews they wished or that race was the issue.
Since Dawkins makes mention of the command to “love your neighbour”, it is worth taking a closer look at it. Leviticus 19:18 says:

“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the LORD.”

It does indeed seem that “neighbour” denotes fellow Jews; however, in the very same chapter (verses 33 and 34) we find:

“When an alien lives with you in your land, do not ill-treat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. LOVE HIM AS YOURSELF, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.”

Or, in Deuteronomy 10:17-19:

“For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, AND LOVES THE ALIEN, giving him food and clothing. And YOU ARE TO LOVE THOSE WHO ARE ALIENS, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.”

So it doesn’t matter that “neighbour” meant fellow-Jew, because the Israelites have to love the alien just the same; in addition, God loves the alien. Those who are familiar with the Old Testament will know that this concern for the alien occurs again and again and again (often included alongside commands to look after widows and orphans). The idea that the Bible teaches love only for Jews is absurd; it is something only a very ignorant person would claim. But not only does Dawkins charge the Old Testament with only commanding Jews to do good to Jews, he also thinks that it doesn’t hold out any hope for the salvation of non-Jews, and that Jesus didn’t either; continuing:

“In the latter half of Hartung’s paper, he moves on to the New Testament. To give a brief summary of his thesis, Jesus was a devotee of the same in-group morality – coupled with out-group hostility – that was taken for granted in the Old Testament. Jesus was a loyal Jew. It was Paul who invented the idea of taking the Jewish God to the Gentiles.” (Page 257)

So, Jesus’ being a loyal Jew and faithful to the Old Testament means that he wouldn’t hold that the Gentiles could be saved, and moreover this idea – an idea contrary to the Old Testament - was invented by Paul. Really? What then of God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3?

“I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

What of the example of the Canaanite Rahab joining the community of Israel during the conquest of Canaan in Joshua 6? What of the Moabite Ruth joining the community of Israel in the book that bears her name? What of God’s concern for other nations – even Israel’s enemies - expressed in the book of Jonah? What about Deuteronomy 32:43 - “Rejoice, O nations, with his people”? What about countless psalms? What about Psalm 47:9 – “The nobles of the nations assemble as the people of the God of Abraham”? What about Isaiah famously calling Israel to be “a light to the gentiles”? What about Isaiah 19:23-25:

“In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. In that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth. The LORD Almighty will bless them, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.”

And what about Zechariah’s prophecy (in Zechariah 2:11), that, “Many nations will be joined with the LORD in that day and will become my people”? Such texts can be found throughout the Old Testament. These are the statements of a racist God, are they? Jews who knew and were faithful to these Scriptures wouldn’t dream of the gentiles being saved or having the Jewish God taken to them? It was all Paul’s idea, was it? The level of Dawkins’ ignorance is almost unfathomable. But it gets even worse:

“Hartung has some good fun with the book of Revelation, which is certainly one of the weirdest books in the Bible. It is supposed to have been written by St. John and, as Ken’s Guide to the Bible neatly put it, if his epistles can be seen as John on pot, then Revelation is John on acid. Hartung draws attention to the two verses in Revelation where the number of those ‘sealed’ (which some sects, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses interpret to mean ‘saved’) is limited to 144,000. Hartung’s point is that they all had to be Jews: 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes.” (Page 258)

Well, Ken’s Guide to the Bible certainly sounds like a scholarly and reliable resource by someone well-qualified to write about the Bible, and a quick internet search will reveal that, indeed, that isn’t the case. Returning to the main issue, I implore you to find a Bible and turn to the book of Revelation, chapter 7. Really, find a Bible and take a look – this is a gem. Looking at chapter 7, you will notice verse 4 which mentions the 144,000 sealed “from all the tribes of Israel”. Then verses 5-8 list the various tribes, and give a count of 12,000 per tribe. This is what Dawkins is talking about; this is where Hartung has made the point that “they all had to be Jews”. Now, do something that Dawkins apparently didn’t - READ THE VERY NEXT VERSE. In case you don’t have a Bible to hand, here’s what it says:

“After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no-one could count, FROM EVERY NATION, TRIBE, PEOPLE AND LANGUAGE, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.”

The passage goes on to make clear that all these people have been saved by God (or, from our vantage point, will be saved by God). These people are clearly not Jews. They are in addition to the Jews who were mentioned just before. What Hartung has inferred about people having to be Jews to be sealed or saved is refuted by the very next verse in the book. Talk about selective reading! We might have naturally thought that Dawkins’ comment that Revelation is “one of the weirdest books in the Bible” indicated that he had read it, or at least skimmed it, but it seems we would be wrong. Dawkins should be deeply ashamed, both for the sources from which he draws his information about the Bible and for the fact that he obviously hasn’t checked it out himself.

Tom Gilson said...

Good questions in that anonymous comment! This is further support for the conclusion that Dawkins picks and chooses his "facts" just on the basis of their convenience to his viewpoint. It's all over the book

Thanks, Victor, for the link.

Anonymous said...


Wow! That was some "Fisking" of Dawkins. You should post it on Dawkins' own website!

David C

David Gifford said...

Brilliant review. Thank you.

I too have been wading my way through Dawkins God Delusion and found it quite a struggle.

Here is another review - again critical but from an evolutionary philosophy veiwpoint

पीटर said...

Sorry, Dawkins is much too gentle in his barbs & hilarious send-ups of the purveyors of spiritual perversions. They deserve much worse than they get from him.

Anonymous said...

If anyone is picking and choosing it would be Victor in his review. The only comments made by Richard Dawkins which you review are some of the less important ones.
Who cares how Richard Swinburne is portrayed? 144,000 Jews? He made a passing speculative comment regarding that. In no way are these issues central to the topic discussed in his book. This pretty much goes for the rest of your review as well.

You do not address, for example, the fact that non-religious people can (and do) live moral lives without any supernatural beliefs - belying the stated belief by the Church that only through God can men (and women) live with morals.

What about the instructions give by God to the Jews to commit genocide? Yes, they probably spared some people, but what of those not spared - basically all of the Canaanites. Do you honestly believe that because those people had different beliefs they deserved to be destroyed? If so then you probably also advocate launching nuclear missiles at Iran, Syria etc...

Instead you try to split hairs about Swinburne and the 12 tribes. Most of his book raises pertinent arguments, which are (as always) ignored.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this. It has made things very clear to me.