When my younger son James asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I had no hesitation. I told my son: “I want The God Delusion for Christmas.” So, since Christmas, I have been reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Even though I do not agree with much of what Dawkins writes, his book is very provocative.
Now, if you are returning from the Moon or from Mars, you probably have never heard of The God Delusion. This is the most vitriolic and probably one of the most intellectual attacks on religion in general and Christianity in particular. The book is also an attack on the notion of God, the Bible, the supernatural, and anything and everything that has to do with matters of faith and religion.
Richard Dawkins is an apostle of atheism who despises the God of the Old Testament. In fact, in a lecture in Virginia, he said that his aim was to offend the God of the Bible. He is an evangelist for his cause, one who preaches a gospel devoid of God, and one who is unapologetic for his sustained criticism of Christianity.
The purpose of Dawkins’s book, in addition to prove that there is no God, is to make converts for atheism. The “Preface” of his book is an invitation for believers and doubters, for seekers and those in between to join the cause of atheism. An in-print prototype of the televangelist for atheism, Dawkins gives an altar call at the end of every sermon (or chapter, as he calls them). His message can be very convincing to people who are unable to argue with his evidence, as H. Allen Orr has convincingly demonstrated in a review of the book.
As I read Dawkins’ book, I was struck by his hatred of the God of Abraham. Over and over again he accuses the God of the Bible with words that clearly reflect his negative obsession with God. In a future post, I will return to Dawkins’ view of the God of the Old Testament.
I was also struck by Dawkins’ refusal to admit that theologians have anything to contribute to the discussion about the existence of God. His ridicule of faith, religion, God, and the supernatural precludes any possibility of dialogue, or intelligent discussion. In his mind, he knows he is right and it is up to theologians and others to prove he is wrong.
There are several issues raised by Dawkins that deserves the attention of people of faith. In a future post I will address Dawkins’ view of the God of the Old Testament. Now, however, I just want to mention two things that came to my mind as I read the book.
1. God’s Friends
A superficial reading of Dawkins’ book tends to confirm that old saying: “At times, God’s worst enemies are his friends.” To support his view that the church and religion cause evil, suffering, and oppression in the world, Dawkins uses the scandals, the fights, and the dirty laundry of Christianity, past and present. And he has plenty of ammunition to use against the church.
Dawkins mentions names, issues, fights, and divisions that have plagued the church throughout the ages. He lists the atrocities, the injustices, the oppressions, and the evils perpetrated by the church in the past. He talks about evangelists and televangelists and their call to give until it hurts. He discusses the church and its fights over doctrinal issues and the suppression of dissenting views. You name the problem, Dawkins talks about it.
It is at times like this that believers must be reminded once again that the world is watching their words and their works. Fair or not, believers’ lives and believers’ work can be used against God and his cause. As Paul wrote, the lives of Christians are open letters, read and known by all (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:1-2 NLT).
Jesus told his disciples: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). When Christians fail to be the light of the world (Matthew 5:14), people cannot see God in them.
God himself had already warned Israel of the danger of not living by divine standards. The prophet Joel wrote that because of the people’s violation of the demands of the covenant, Israel would become an object of mockery and their name would become a proverb for unbelieving people who would mock God and say “Where is the God of Israel?” (Joel 2:17).
As long as Christians give ammunition to people like Dawkins, he will use it in order to shoot down and kill people of faith. Despite his arsenal, he will not be able to kill God and his church. Better people than Dawkins have tried and failed. I am sure that one hundred years from now very few people will know who Richard Dawkins was.
2. The Loophole
Reading The God Delusion reminded me of the writings of Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899). In his days, Ingersoll was called “The Great Agnostic,” and “The Great Atheist.” Ingersoll was a great orator and his speeches mesmerized many people. He was a prolific writer who specialized in proving that the Bible was wrong and that the church and religion were evil.
Ingersoll ridiculed the notion that there was a God or that there is life after death. He rejected the supernatural, the reality of faith, the possibility of prayer, and denied that the Bible is a record of God’s revelation to human beings.
Ingersoll used in his speeches some of the same tactics Dawkins uses in his book. While many of Dawkins’ attacks against Christianity are based on his scientific background, Ingersoll’s attacks were based on the discrepancies and contradictions in the Bible. Ingersoll also used church behavior and church fights over doctrinal matters as the basis for his attacks on Christianity.
One of his memorable speeches was the eulogy spoken at the time of the death of his brother, E. C. Ingersoll. It is here that we can see Robert Ingersoll’s wish for the existence of a God. His words are a request for someone who can answer prayer and provide hope after death. Speaking about the death of his brother, Ingersoll wrote:
Life is a narrow vale between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities. We strive in vain to look beyond the heights. We cry aloud, and the only answer is the echo of a wailing cry. From the voiceless lips of the unreplying dead there comes no word; but in the night of death hope sees a star and listening love can hear the rustle of a wing. He who sleeps here, when dying, mistaking the approach of death for the return of health, whispered with his latest breath, “I am better now.” Let us believe, in spite of doubts and dogmas and tears and fears, that these dear words are true of all the countless dead.
It is in those words, in the night of death hope sees a star that we see a crack in the wall of atheism, the faint light that begins to shine in the dark heart of an atheist, the evidence that an unspoken hope is present. The expression, the peaks of two eternities, may reflect the awareness that there is life here and life beyond. The expression We cry aloud, and the only answer is the echo of a wailing cry may reflect the struggle atheists encounter when confronted with the reality of death and the end of existence. But Ingersoll’s words, Let us believe, in spite of doubts and dogmas may be the loophole he was looking for to give him a ray of hope that he would see his brother again.
Ingersoll’s words remind me of the anecdote about the lawyer, a famous atheist, who was sick and about to die. On his death bed, the man asked for a Bible. When an acquaintance saw him reading the Bible, he asked: “Aren’t you an atheist?” “Yes”, the man replied, “but I am looking for a loophole.”
Even Dawkins may inadvertently have left a very small crack in the wall for himself, a very faint burning light that some day may be as bright as the midday sun. And that dimly lit light is found in his own words.
Dawkins develops a spectrum of probabilities about the existence of God. In this spectrum, there are seven levels of probability concerning the issue whether God exists. At one extreme is Level 1, where strong theists are. Those who are on Level 1 believe 100% that God exists. On the other extreme, Level 7 is where the strong atheists are. A strong atheist is the one who says for a fact that there is no God.
Dawkins places himself at Level 6. Those who are on Level 6 say that there is a very low probability that God exists. Those on Level 6 are the people who say they cannot know for sure but think that maybe God does not exist.
Ah! Level 6 may reflect a faint light that is still alive in the hearts of atheists. That very low probability that God exists may be the sign of a faintly burning wick that is still burning. It is that crack in the wall that may allow the water of a mighty river to flow through. This is what happened with Antony Flew, the famous British philosopher and atheist, who at the end of his life abandoned his atheistic beliefs and embraced theism.
Even Dawkins himself has to admit that there are few people on Level 7. The reason? Maybe, when people are faced with the reality of their mortality, people have to consider seriously that life may not end at death. It is when one is confronted with the night of death, as Ingersoll was, that one hopes to see a star, a faint light that begins to shine in the darkness of a dark heart.
In his book, Dawkins never said that God exists, but he also said that it is impossible to disprove the existence of God. Thus, it is possible that, for Dawkins, Level 6 may be the sign that a faintly burning wick is still burning, but so faint that it is about to be put out. If it is so, let us then remember the reassuring words of the prophet about the work of the Servant: “He will not let a faintly burning wick be put out” (Isaiah 42:3).
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Note: Chris Heard has been writing a chapter-by-chapter review of The God Delusion. To read Chris’ reviews, visit Higgaion.