The God Delusion:

by Richard Dawkins. 2006, Houghton Mifflin, Boston and New York,
x + 406 pages.

Richard Dawkins feels that we are too polite to religion. Indeed, we may even go beyond politeness when we respect the feelings of Muslims who were hurt by the appearance of cartoons in a Danish newspaper. Nobody ever shows such consideration to candidates for office, on the other hand. “All politicians must get used to disrespectful cartoons of their faces, and nobody rises in their defence. What is so special about religion that we grant it such uniquely privileged respect?” (p. 27)

Dawkins shows no such respect. He has the following to say about Judaism: “Originally a tribal cult of a single fiercely unpleasant God, morbidly obsessed with sexual restrictions, with the smell of charred flesh, with his own superiority over rival gods and with the exclusiveness of his own chosen desert tribe” (p. 37).

As a consequence of the illogical respect that our society shows for religion, says Dawkins, the views of those who are not religious are ignored. The irreligious have no political power. He writes, “Unlike Jews, however, who are notoriously one of the most effective political lobbies in the United States, and unlike evangelical Christians, who wield even greater political power, atheists and agnostics are not organized and therefore exert almost zero influence” (p. 4).

Despite its notoriety, Jewish power failed to persuade President Roosevelt to admit refugees fleeing Hitler, failed to convince President Eisenhower to end the arms embargo against Israel, failed to get President George H. W. Bush to allow Israel to respond to missile attacks launched by Saddam Hussein, and even failed to stop President George W. Bush from rescuing Iran’s ally, Hezbollah, at the last moment by joining with France’s President Chirac to pass Security Council Resolution 1701, which called for a withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon. Dawkins opposes all religion, everywhere, but he pays a bit more attention to the negative aspects of ancient Judaism and modern Jews than to the dark side of other religions.

Dawkins never mentions the Talmud at all. Although the Talmud respects the Torah, it also contradicts it. It is a series of arguments, some of which are not settled. Even within the Bible itself, there are places where the Prophets contradict the Torah.

For example, the Prophet Hosea felt adultery should not be a punishable offense at all. He offered a good feminist argument: men are worse. He wrote, "I will not punish your daughters if they commit harlotry, nor your daughters-in-law when they commit adultery; for they themselves [men] consort with lewd women, and they sacrifice with harlots; and the people that is without understanding is distraught" (4:14). Argument is built into Judaism. In fact, Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, which means “wrestled God,” precisely because Jacob spent a night wrestling with God. He not only wrestled, but he won: “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob but Israel; for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed” (Gen. 32:19).

Dawkins asks whether the New Testament is any better than the Old, and concludes, “Well, there’s no denying that, from a moral point of view, Jesus is a huge improvement over the cruel ogre of the Old Testament” (p.250). That is because Dawkins doesn’t believe there is a Hell. Without the existence of eternal damnation, Jesus doesn’t sound all that bad. But there could not possibly be anything more cruel than everlasting torment. Jesus tells parable after parable about those who are damned—essentially for their lack of faith. The rich man we read about in Luke 16:19-31, who is in Hell for not admitting a beggar with oozing sores into his house, asks that his brothers be informed about Hell so that they shouldn’t wind up there as he did. He is told that the brothers have access to the words of Moses and the prophets. Jesus fails to mention in his parable that nowhere in the words of Moses and the prophets is there anything about punishment after death. Hell is not merely supremely merciless, but also supremely unjust; it is a place that you can’t really know about until you are dead and it is too late.

Atheists, like Christians, believe Jesus is merciful. Christians do so because they have faith in the infinite mercy of Jesus, which means that in some way humans can’t understand, Hell has to be evidence of God’s mercy. Atheists do so because they can’t take the idea of damnation seriously. Dawkins and other atheists don’t make the connection that believers make: people have to be converted in order to save them from everlasting fire. As a result, for centuries, heretics were burned at the stake. The Inquisition came into existence. The Crusades took place. Is this an improvement over the cruel ogre of the Old Testament? As Jesus himself said, “By their fruits shall ye know them” (Matthew 7:16). It is the belief in damnation, and nothing else, that has led people to murder those who didn’t accept the “true” faith.

Jesus, to be sure, performed miracles, which were simultaneously acts of mercy and of showing off. But how merciful are acts like multiplying the loaves and fishes if they occur only once? Jesus felt poverty could never be ended. “For ye have the poor always with you” (Matthew 26:11). No socialist he.

There is a particular event in the Bible that is generally cited as proof of the kindness of Jesus, the time he saved the woman taken in adultery from a mob ready to stone her by saying “He who is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (John 8:7). Implicit in that statement is a rejection of all law, since there is nobody who could ever enforce rules and regulations. Did Jesus say stoning is wrong? No. Did he say adultery should not be a capital offense? No. He did succeed in saving the woman, however, and he deserves credit for stopping the mob. Does that good deed mean he should be forgiven for passing on to Christianity, and subsequently, to Islam, the doctrine of eternal damnation? Believing in Hell, throughout history, has led people to be hellish. Dawkins is soft on Jesus.

Or maybe he isn’t. Here is what he has to say about what he calls the central doctrine of Christianity: “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?” (p.253). An excellent point. If Christ had to die to save us from Hell, shouldn’t Judas be as revered as the Cross itself?

A major part of The God Delusion is devoted to an attack against creationism. Among the powerful arguments he uses is the following: “Natural selection works because it is a cumulative one-way street to improvement. … But whatever else we may say, design certainly does not work as an explanation for life, because design is not cumulative and it therefore raises bigger questions than it answers” (p. 141). Surprisingly, he does not cite the Bible itself as an argument against creationism. The account of the creation in Genesis tells us that Adam and Eve had sons; it does not mention daughters. Clearly, the writers of Genesis knew their story was an allegory. Did they know there is no water above the sky? The story of the Flood includes the words “and the windows of heaven were opened” (Gen. 7:11). Is this merely a beautiful metaphor? Did the authors know the earth is round? Perhaps they didn’t. When we read “And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so” (Gen. 1:9), it sounds as if the earth is flat. A creationist will not be convinced by the argument that evolution is more likely than a God who knows every single detail of the universe. But perhaps pointing out that a round earth is nowhere mentioned in the Bible will be a more effective tactic. Elsewhere, Dawkins provides evidence that many American Christians hardly know the Bible at all: “Three-quarters of Catholics and Protestants could not name a single Old Testament prophet. More than two-thirds didn’t know who preached the Sermon on the Mount. A substantial number thought Moses was one of Jesus’s twelve apostles” (p. 341). Dawkins knows a great deal more about the Bible than these believers. He understands how much of our culture is based on Biblical passages, and lists numerous words and expressions that have entered everyday speech, among them “shibboleth” and “Death, where is thy sting?” (pp. 341-343).

Despite the persistence of people who are creationists, to a certain extent we live in a post-Jewish, post-Christian age. The Bible commands us to execute witches (Exodus 22:18) and homosexuals (Leviticus 20:13). These commandments were obeyed for centuries, but today nobody wants to talk about them, if indeed they know of their existence.

One can be a secular Jew. One can be a Jewish atheist who nevertheless observes Jewish rituals. Is that religion? I don’t know. Religion has inspired great music and great architecture. It has also inspired the banning of music and the destruction of art. Perhaps we should make a distinction between religion and faith. Because I have lived in China, I have met people who suffered under Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution. I knew an elderly woman who had been beaten up by her students. Later, I met a young man who had participated in beating his teachers. The people who were in the Red Guards and committed many destructive acts did so because they had faith. It was an atheistic faith, but it was an example of blind belief despite the absence of a deity. The Red Guards were cruel and destructive because they believed their acts would somehow, magically, bring about an age when there never again would be conflict of interest. They looked upon such an age as a type of heaven on earth.

Dawkins is right. Politeness should not stop us from questioning and disagreeing with religion. Religion should not be sacrosanct. If salvation is to have any meaning at all, it should mean questioning. Jewish tradition, from Jacob to Hosea to the Talmud, is a tradition of questioning.

This review appeared in the January/February 2008 issue of Midstream.