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.


danielhixon said...

It frustrates me to no end how many people - and this goes for Christians, even clergy - have no idea how the Bible works, specifically that it is a PROGRESSIVE revelation. It is very clear - even from the structure of the Bible itself (1st there is the Old Testament...then a New Testament) that it is not all one revelation given all at once (basically like the Koran).

The God of Israel takes a people for his own and over time he enlarges their understanding - at first they likely consider him one God among many, though perhaps the best or mightiest. Then over time they are brought to understand (by David's time, certainly by Isaiah's) that he is in fact the Only God who created all things.

The moral code given in the Law is given focus, emphasis, and clarification in the prophets. And in Jesus all the Scriptures are fulfilled. So for the Christian Jesus is the definitive revelation and he (and the New Testament/apostolic witness to him in general) is the lens for understanding the OT.

So, I don't know if Dawkins realizes this, but the Christian Church as such has NEVER stoned people to death as a religious practice - though we have been the subject of such actions, just ask Paul and Stephen. Nor does the Christian refusal to do this mean we are arbitrarily picking some verses over others (though people certainly do that when they have some other values that are not Biblically-derived that do have a higher practical authority for them); but rather it means we have carefully attended to each step of God's revelation to its final revelation of Jesus, the Kingdom, and the New Covenant and come to the conclusion that he does not want us to do so.

Yet so many Christians approach the Bible as if it were the Koran and was all sort of revealed at once and every single part had the same practical authority for the believer today. Yet this is obviously an error: How many animals have we sacrificed at church lately (fried chickens not withstanding)? Dawkins makes the same error and fails to understand how the Bible works. Other Christians it seems to me adopt a practical Marcionism and dismiss the Old Testament and all depictions of God therein as useless or even false. Yet this too fails to take into account how the NT builds on and fulfills the OT, so that there is a continuity, even as there is also movement to new and deeper understandings.

But if even Christians mis-understand these things, it should be no surprise at all that the secular media (or academia) has no idea at all; they are indeed the blind leading the blind when they put out articles like this.

And OF COURSE our ultimate beliefs form our moral compass - whether we call them 'religion' or not is really nothing more than a cover - everyone's ultimate beliefs form his 'religion'; yet modernity uses the word to select certain belief systems for marginalization while giving others not covered by this word 'religion' a free pass.

danielhixon said...

In fact, as far as I can remember, excommunication is the strongest sanction that the NT provides for matters of discipline. There is no authorization for Christian leaders to use any kind of coercive force (jail, stonings, burnings) whatever to guard the integrity of the church. This is why the use of such coercion in the Medieval period and Reformation era was so horribly misguided (sinful and indeed diabolical in the original sense).

But I would question Dawkins' brilliance a bit if he doesn't have the sense to know what he doesn't know. The Good Lord knows I would never write an op-ed piece even for the local paper about science except to encourage folks to defer to the best judgment of the scientists on such matters.

That goes beyond just a lack of humility, to a lack of wisdom and understanding as well. He needs to spend some time hanging out with Socrates.

Emily said...


Forgive me, but I've got to correct a few things you said about the Qur'an and Islam...

The Qur'an is not traditionally understood to have been revealed all at one time, but at several points in Muhammed's life, relating to events in Mecca and Medina, etc. and spanning many years and at least several if not many occassions. It was not all dumped thru Gabriel via Allah all at one time.

Also, all verses and suras do not hold equal weight among themselves, for many reasons, not the least of which is because of that not-all-revealed-at-one-time-ness of the text. There have been centuries of debate over what texts have been abbrogated (canceled/overruled) by others concerning all aspects (and role) of sharia and Islam's interaction with non-believers, and on and on.. It is still a very active and debated issue at to what verses take precedence in (the many) cases of intra-textual contradiction. The very process itself is an issue in its own right as to who has the authority to decide what verses are abrogated, what criteria should be followed, or if that is even a viable option for faithful Muslims at all. Even among those that argue from a chronological order for abrogation can't agree on what suras and parts of suras can be dated to which period!

As for the rest of your comment, I have none of my own, save for this taking issue with your drawing a contrasting comparison between how the Quar'an and the Bible, which is fact the texts are dealt with quite similiarly as far as how the faithful must wrestle with contradictions within their sacred texts.

Peace :)

Russell Nolan said...


I am glad that I can picture you "air-raging".

Your comments are spot on, but they should be a reminder to us, as Christians, to be careful in how we state our opinions, and how we generated those opinions in the first place.

As a science teacher, I have continued to develop a deeper and more God-glorifying appreciation for the process of science. I go in to an "air rage", however, when I hear Christians say "well, evolution is just a...theory...," I have to count to ten so I don't publicly voice my air rage. My response has nothing to do with my personal opinions on creation/evolution, but strictly with the reasoning behind the opinion. We just expect someone as well learned as Dr. Dawkins would know better.

That is not to say, all of my opinions are formed by solid support, nor do I like to have my firmly held beliefs shaken up. I understand the sin nature behind it. Humans are quite talented at believing things even when all evidence points to the contrary.

Fortunately, we rely on and seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit to expose where we are misguided.

Hope all is well