All Dawkins, All The Time

I know I’m blogging about the God Delusion non-stop but it is stimulating a lot of thought. Today, I’ve been reading the worst part of the book, in which Dawkins tries to show that religion is immoral. I blogged earlier about the specious claim that certain violent conflicts wouldn’t be happening without religion. Dawkins also takes some time to bash up the Bible itself, pointing out how jealous its God is, how immoral its characters are, etc.

The problem is, this is territory that has already been trod — and better — by people like Robert Heinlein or Mark Twain. And the really real problem is that you can’t analyze the Bible in a vacuum (this applies to biblical literalists as well).

First, any analysis of the Bible has to take into account the thousands of years of commentary and interpretation that has been layered onto it. Dawkins is nastily selective in his analysis, which makes me thinks he’s merely quote-mining from other atheists. But thousands of years of thought have produced an interpretation that is modern, humane and rational. As my rabbi said to me, the Bible is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.

Religion evolves too, Dr. Dawkins.

Second, you have to consider the context in which the Bible was written. The hebrews were a savage, illiterate people to whom the injunction not to throw their kids into a bonfire to make a stone god happy was revolutionary thought. In its time, the Bible was incredibly liberal.

For example, Dawkins goes on about how many Biblical crimes merit the death penalty, failing to note the Bible later requires two witnesses for execution — a requirement that exceeds that of present-day America. He ignores the later commentary that effectively outlawed the death penalty and ignores the Jewish and Catholic leaders that today oppose the death penalty even for murder.

Also ignored in his selective analysis of the Bible: humane restrictions on slavery, restrictions on criminal punishment, demands to treat strangers fairly and justly, the edict of one law for everyone (Dawkins is completely wrong when he claims the ten commandments only apply to how you treat other Jews), inheritance rights for women, protection for accidental killers, an organized system of justice, etc., etc.

For a much more sympathetic and intelligent view, I recomend Blogging the Bible in which David Plotz reads his way through the book for the first time.

Bible-bashing is the ultimate straw man. It’s fun. Hell, I do it whenever some right moron starts yammering about killing gays. It’s a great way to respond to the legions of Highlighter Fundamentalists, who site the Bible as their justification for whatever narrow viewpoint they’ve wedged themselves into. But it is not a reasonable approach to mainstream religion or to religious history. You can’t prove God doesn’t exist or that religion is bad by analyzing what it was doing 3000 years ago. It doesn’t work that way.

Let me turn this around. Suppose I were a religious nut who hated science. What would Dawkins think if I dismissed the entirety of modern scientific thought by noting that:

  • Aristotle was wrong about almost everything.
  • Newton’s laws of dynamics do not work in relativistic situations.
  • Darwin’s understanding of evolution is outdated and he didn’t know anything about genetics.
  • Lord Kelvin once proved the Sun could not be billions of years old.
  • Almost everything that Tycho Brahe thought about cosmology was wrong.
  • Data in the 1990’s indicated that globular clusters were older than the Universe itself.
  • Dawkins would laugh. If I were to try to discredit science by attacking discarded ideas that were even ten years old, he’d say that I was being unfair. That I have to account for all the work, research and advancement that has taken place since then. And if I dragged out Aristotle and pointed out how wrong he was?

    You can’t disprove religion by bashing a document that is at least 3000 years old. It is unfortunate and stupid that a recent wave of Christian fundamentalism has elevated the Bible back to inerrancy. But you don’t win the argument by playing the lunatics’ game.

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