Richard Dawkins vs. The Old Testament: Have you heard the one about the Christian, the rabbi and the atheist?

by Justin Brierley

The Bible just won’t lie down and die. The inevitable demise of scripture as an irrelevant piece of outmoded literature has been predicted many times down the centuries. Yet in 2014, a major TV dramatisation has just aired in the UK, an epic movie about Noah is coming to cinemas, and the Bible continues to outsell every other book on the planet.

Even Richard Dawkins, the world’s best-known atheist, acknowledges the literary debt we owe to scripture. When I invited him to discuss the Old Testament with a rabbi and a Christian he was the first to extol the Bible’s cultural impact.

‘It’s a part of our literary heritage in this country. You can’t appreciate English literature without being familiar with many of the phrases. Many people are probably not aware of the fact that they come from the Bible, many of them from the Old Testament.’

It’s a refreshing admission of the Bible’s literary value. Nevertheless, Dawkins pulls no punches when it comes to his view of the moral value of scripture. As the leading voice for many sceptics around the world we need to be prepared to hear his objections to the relevance of the Old Testament. So, can a rabbi, a Christian and an atheist make sense of the Old Testament today?

ON THE GOD OF THE OLD TESTAMENT…

In The God Delusion (Black Swan), Dawkins famously described Yahweh as ‘arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak, a capriciously malevolent bully’ and the list went on. But does he still stand by his description today?

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‘Yes, I do. I was accused of anti-Semitism by the recent Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, but I don’t know why he thought it was anti-Semitic: it was anti-God,’ he says. ‘The “terror” passages are taken literally by some, and many people do actually believe that the Bible is authored by God. And God, in those “terror” passages, is a horrifically unpleasant character – there’s no getting away from that.’

To Rabbi Josh Levy however, Dawkins’ famous line was overly simplistic: ‘It fails to recognise that the Bible has a number of different texts for how we can understand God. There is also a deeply ethical God who was saying to the Israelites: “You have to care about the vulnerable in your society, do your business honestly, look after your workers, care about the immigrant”.’

I WAS ACCUSED OF ANTI-SEMITISM BY THE CHIEF RABBI, BUT I’M NOT ANTI-SEMITIC, I’M ANTI-GOD

On this point Dawkins is willing to concede. ‘It was a passage that was semi tongue-in-cheek, actually,’ he admits. ‘When I do public readings we usually try to get a laugh from the audience early on because it lightens up the atmosphere, and that passage always gets them roaring with laughter. I do accept that if you look through either the Old or New Testament you can certainly find passages of wisdom that one would ethically approve of.’

In any case, the target audience, it turns out, are American fundamentalists. ‘You have to read The God Delusion through that filter,’ he says. ‘I’m aiming it at least partly at those people in America who are my enemies as a scientist and are subverting scientific education in a very serious way. So in a sense I wasn’t trying to irritate nice, decent, liberal theologians like Chris and Josh.’

Chris Sinkinson laughs to hear himself described as a ‘liberal’ theologian (an assumption Dawkins would later revise), but after affirming the biologist’s right to poke fun at God, he became more serious…

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Richard Dawkins vs. The Old Testament