Yesterday, I promised that I would address the charges that the God which I (as a Catholic) worship is a “misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” I can see from the combox that some of the atheist peanut gallery are standing by, waiting for me to tangle myself up in a mess of scriptural double talk. I’m not planning to do that at all. Rather, I want to talk about the difference between a) rational belief in God, and the rational practice of religion, and b) dogmatism.
One of the things that I found the most difficult to understand when I was watching Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” was his seeming inability to distinguish between what I would call fundamentalism, and ordinary religion. At one point, he sits down with a moderate, gay Anglican bishop who Dawkins finds to be generally likable, rational, and not at all like the ragtag assembly of anachronistic, overzealous religious fanatics that have populated the rest of the program. As the conversation with the Anglican proceeds, Dawkins (or his editing team) fade out the man’s remarks and Dawkins poses an overdubbed rhetorical question: If you don’t believe that every word of Scripture is the literal word of God, and you’re not willing to hand in your brain at the door when you enter a place of worship, why be religious at all?
Sadly, Dawkins does not pose this question to his interlocutor, only to the audience who are invited to share in his befuddlement.
Now obviously atheists vary widely in terms of their beliefs, morality, attitudes towards religion, and so forth. But one belief that I’ve found to be common (not universal, but common) is this odd notion that religion is not worth believing in unless it poses some kind of arbitrary, absolute authority that overrides reason, conscience, culture, scientific truth and personal experience. It’s a doubly curious belief given that most atheists do not, themselves, think that arbitrary, absolute authorities are worthy of credence.
Part of it, perhaps, is an overexposure to certain types of “Bible-based” Christianity. I’ll readily admit that I often find Bible Christians baffling. So far as I can tell, there is a real subset of people raised in Christian homes for whom Scripture is absolute epistemological bedrock. They accept the authority of Scripture as naturally as most people in this culture accept the authority of scientific observation — and nothing short of an intellectual cataclysm would cause them to ever question a single word of Holy Writ.
But realistically, nobody who is (or has ever been) an atheist is likely to become this kind of Christian. To believe that Scripture trumps reason, observation, historical fact, scientific consensus, or literally any other possible source of truth you have to be raised with that belief, and you have to never seriously question it. An atheist, even if they were raised that way, has to be someone who has questioned those beliefs. But in any case, most religious people do not understand Scripture in this way.
To me, truth must be cut from whole cloth. There aren’t bits of truth that contradict other bits of truth. This doesn’t mean that the whole truth is accessible to humans (various scientific and philosophical theorists of the modern period have exhaustively demonstrated that, in fact, the precise opposite is true: that a great deal of truth is necessarily inaccessible to us.) It does mean that whenever we run up against two pieces of seemingly true data that are at odds with one another, either one of them is false or we’ve established a false dichotomy.
In the case of belief of God, I think it’s pretty easily demonstrable that it is both rational and moral to worship what I will call “the God of the philosophers.” That is: an uncaused cause, a powerful Being who is responsible for the existence of the world, whose essence is Goodness, Truth, and Beauty and who is the fountainhead of all of the goodness that we find in the world. I am not (note) saying that I can rationally demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that such a being exists, but it can be rationally demonstrated that the existence of such a being is one of two, basic rational possibilities (the other rational possibility being that causality breaks down prior to the Big Bang, that nothing “caused” the universe to come into existence — basically, that a universe is just a kind of thing that exists without cause, in rather the same way that religious people would argue that God is just a kind of being that exists without cause.) The Creator-God theory is cogent, it’s rational, it explains the data, it corresponds to a lot of our intuitions about how things should work, and it makes sense of the fact that having a sense of God’s “presence” is a near universal human experience.
The problem, of course, is that when we make the leap to Christianity suddenly this shining philosophical construct seems to take on a personality…and if you believe that every act attributed to God in the Bible is literally true, that personality is rather baffling. I mean, what kind of perfect, omnibenevolant Creator would want to see the Canaanites slaughtered down to the last sheep? And why would a being capable of conceiving of the inconceivable grandeur of the universe be somehow super offended if a guy who had a wet dream neglected to go out of the camp and wash himself in the right way? The text seems to present us with a combination of really profound moral and spiritual truths, and really bizarrely petty, often irrational demands.
There are three possible ways of resolving this problems. The first, is to reject the whole thing as stupid. Atheism. The second is to come up with convoluted explanations for why God’s behaviour in the Old Testament seems so strange and inconsistent. Literalism. The third is to recognize that what Scripture in fact is, is the story of a particular group of people, starting in a particular historical and cultural context, developing a relationship with God that culminates in God’s perfect self-gift in the person of Christ.
The third possibility takes into account the fact that the writers of Scripture were in fact human beings. It accounts for the fact that Christ more or less tells us point-blank that Moses himself pandered to the people when he was writing out the law (cf. Matthew 19:8). For the fact that God seems super-uptight about what people are and are not supposed to eat in the Torah, and then seems to change His mind to “Meh, eat what you like,” in the New Covenant. And so on, and so forth.
If you look at Scripture in this way, a lot of the difficulties clear themselves up pretty quickly. It becomes immediately apparent that actually what happened here is that “misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent” human beings living in ancient Israel broke the second commandment and took the name of God in vain. That is, they claimed to speak for God, when really they were speaking for themselves. They claimed that their worldly, political heroes were great men blessed by God — in much the same way, and for much the same reasons, that evangelicals today speak of Donald Trump as if he were God’s gift to America. They attributed their crimes to God, they justified their wars as being the will of God, they interpreted their victories as acts of God, and they claimed that their rules came straight from the mouth of God.
But if you sit down and read Scripture, you can see there is another force working within the story. There is God. A God whose personality believably resembles what you might expect from a perfect being. God correcting the arrogance, militarism, rapaciousness, exceptionalism and legalism of His people. God slowly and patiently guiding this people out of their sins, towards compassion, generosity and mercy. God, finally, offering the startling counter-witness of His own advent as a helpless baby, born to a poor and unwed mother, descended from a line of sinners and outcasts, come to “cast the mighty from their thrones, and raise the lowly.” A God in who does not make value distinctions between woman and man, gentile and Jew, servant and free. A God who is scandalously pro-sinner and pro-foreigner, insistently uninterested in the dignity of His position, and who instead of raising Himself on a pedestal raises Himself on a Cross.
This God, the God that the quiet majority of Christians actually worship, bears no resemblance at all to the vindictive, bloodthirsty caricature described by Dawkins. And if atheists are going to have an honest conversation about Christianity, this is the God that they have to contend with.
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