Sunday, September 29, 2013

religion as a moral compass?

At this very second, if I go to CNN's website the top piece of "world news" is essentially an opinion piece, a brief interview with Richard Dawkins, the British atheist evolutionary biologist. The piece is dubbed "Dawkins: Religion no moral compass," a title that draws particular attention to the first question Dr. Dawkins is asked: "A number of readers noting your skepticism over religion’s role in society ask whether an absence of religion would leave us without a moral compass?"

His response sent me into an air rage. [An air rage is when one waves his fist around in the air in sheer, silent fury.]

Dawkins responds by calling this idea "horrible," that religion might be a 'moral compass'. No surprise here. He goes on to declare that we should not "get our moral compass from religion." Again, totally expected. And he's entitled to an opinion on the topic. That's fine.
Then he goes one to say that, not only should we not allow religion to determine our morals, but we actually don't allow religion to determine our morals. We are faced with horrific things in scripture, he explains, such as stoning people to death and stoning people for breaking the Sabbath (his two examples), but
... of course we don’t do that anymore, but the reason we don’t do it is that we pick out those verses of the bible that we like, and reject those verses we don’t like. What criteria do we use to pick out the good ones and reject the bad ones? Non-biblical criteria, non-religious criteria. The same criteria as guide any modern person in their moral compass that has nothing to do with religion.

Air rage.

Richard Dawkins is a brilliant man. I loved his book The Greatest Show on Earth--after that, he's probably the best biology teacher I've ever had.
But when he opens his mouth and talks about religion, too often he speaks from such ignorance that it is simply astonishing. (And this is a sad irony, given the fury he's no doubt felt over the years listening to religious people speaking ignorantly about evolutionary biology.)

The only examples he gives of horrible things in the Bible that Christians (he may have Jews in mind as well, but certainly Christians) no longer do are "stoning people to death, stoning people for breaking the Sabbath." Such horrible things, he asserts, we no longer do because we pick and choose which biblical injunctions to follow, without any biblical criteria for our choices. One more time: Richard Dawkins, in the top CNN world news story of the day, claims that 21st century Christians arbitrarily choose not to stone people to death, having no biblical warrant for such a choice.
1 ...Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. 9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

That's John 8:1-11, a rather well-known passage.

Dr. Dawkins also seems to ignore all of Jesus' teachings concerning the Sabbath law.
He also seems to equate religion with 'following regulations written in a book'.
Additionally, he seems to be totally unaware of the disagreements and debates within the Bible itself and of the resulting complexities of erecting a moral framework out of such a diverse collection of texts.
He seems to be unaware of the brilliant, complex, nuanced ethical treatments people have to construct when taking the Bible seriously.
He does not seem to know about the scriptures' habit of pointing beyond themselves for moral guidance, pointing to the Spirit of God.
He seems to be unaware of the number of 21st century Christians who don't get to do the things they'd like to do, or who do things they'd rather not do, precisely because they're trying to take faithfulness as their moral compass.

People listen to this man as if he were an authority.
And yet this one, extremely well-publicized, piece is so full of absurdities and cluelessness that I don't know what to do with myself. I can't believe any news source would put something so ridiculous, so full of obvious falsehoods, in such a prominent place on their website.  That is infuriating.

This is also why, on occasion at Grace United Methodist Church, we will say a prayer for "those who influence public opinion" (adapted from the Book of Common Prayer). It goes like this:
Almighty God, you proclaim your truth in every age by many voices: and so we pray that you direct in our time those who speak where many listen and write what many read; that they may do their part in making people’s hearts wise and their wills righteous. Guide your people to recognize the voices that speak for you and distinguish them from the voices that would lead people astray, and guide us to speak the truth with grace and power in the face of falsehood; to the honor of Jesus Christ, we pray...

I always have Richard Dawkins in mind when I pray this. Not because I hope that he will convert to Christianity and begin using his influence for the gospel--that would be a beautiful thing, but that's not what I'm praying for. I'm praying that right now, as the world-renowned, atheist evolutionary biologist, he will say things that make people's hearts wise. He doesn't have to be a Christian to do that. He can speak about biology, nature, and this world, he can speak about atheism and the real differences between believers and non-believers, about challenges to our faith, in a way that will make people's hearts wise.
But instead, in this case, he's doing just the opposite. He's reinforcing simplistic misconceptions that many people harbor, and that's benefiting no one.

But I'll continue to pray this prayer, and I'll continue to hope that one day such rubbish will stop coming from each side, and in its place we'll see real understanding and informed dialogue.
Just not today, I'm afraid.