Thursday, April 8, 2010

TGD: Chapter Two - On the Character of God

Chapter Two of "The God Delusion" begins with the following sentence: "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sado-masochistic, capriciously malevolent bully." Today's post is going to be a response to this one sentence. Now, I don't pan on walking through the rest of the book one sentence at a time, however, since I worship the God whom Dawkins is slandering, it seems only fair that I should offer a rebuttal.

I'll start by responding to the most egregiously false accusations.

On the top of that list would be the claim that the God of the Old Testament is unforgiving. This is simply not true. Throughout the Old Testament we see God forgiving people. He repeatedly forgives the nations of Israel and Judah, in the book of Jonah he forgave the entire city of Nineveh, which was the capital of one of the most notoriously bloodthirsty empires in the ancient world, and he famously forgave King David when he committed both murder and adultery. Those are just a few examples.

What's more, whenever God does punish people, it's almost always after he has been patient and forgiving over an extended period of time. He waited four hundred years to punish the Amorites for, among other things, ritually sacrificing infants. If anything, the God of the Old Testament is forgiving to a fault.

Then there's the accusation that God is filicidal. I will freely admit that I had to look this one up. Filicide is the act of killing one's own son or daughter. Presumably this refers to the crucifixion of Jesus. That doesn't happen in the Old Testament, but we'll ignore that for now.

First of all, Jesus was a grown adult who went willingly to his death. More importantly, God wasn't the one who killed him. Finally, as John Cleese might say, he got better.

(If we assume he's sticking to the Old Testament, this could be referring to the book of Exodus, in which God calls the Jewish people his firstborn son. The main problem with this theory is that the Jewish people are still alive and well.)

The accusation that God is megalomaniacal is more humorous than anything else. The God of the Old Testament made the whole universe out of nothing and Dawkins is accusing him of having delusions of grandeur. To what great heights could a delusional, omnipotent deity aspire to? Does he take a break from ruling the heavens and the earth so he can pretend to be the King of Scotland? Does the one who formed a human being out of dirt like to pretend that he invented the sandwich? In the preface to the paperback edition, Dawkins said that he wanted this sentence to come across as humorous*. This is one place where I think he succeeded admirably, although not as he intended.

The claim that God is racist presumably refers to how God treats the Jewish people compared with everyone else. It's true that God had a special arrangement with the nation of Israel, but that arrangement does not include special treatment. The Old Testament makes it clear that God cares for the nations surrounding Israel, just like he cares for Israel. In fact, as part of their special arrangement, the Israelites have an obligation to be a blessing to the nations around them. God's treaty with Israel isn't about God loving Israel more than everyone else. It's about God wanting Israel to be a blessing to everyone else, which is more like the opposite of racism.

Of all the accusations that Mr. Dawkins makes against God, the one that is the most accurate is that God is jealous. God is jealously protective of the Jewish people. He wants them to stay faithful to the promise that they had made to serve him. Even though they repeatedly break that promise, God keeps his promise and remains faithful to them. God becomes jealous, but he does not abandon him. In my mind, that is one of God's best qualities. He stays faithful to his people, even when they cause him pain.

The last accusation that I'm going to address directly is that God is unjust. In many ways that one word sums up the whole sentence. The central point being made is that God's reign of the earth, as described in the Old Testament, is unjust.

The question is to big for me to provide anything close to a thorough answer. Instead I will do my best to present, in brief, what the Old Testament has to say on the subject.

In the beginning, God made everything good. Humanity lived in paradise with God and God provided them with everything they would ever need. God gave them only one rule and it was easy to obey. Things fell apart when humanity broke that law. God punishes humanity in order to restore justice, and God promises to fix what is broken.

This is the basic pattern of Genesis 1-3, and it forms a template that recurs over and over again throughout scripture. The template goes something like this: 1) God does something good for an individual or a group of people, 2) sooner or later that individual or group does something evil, 3) God responds to the evil that has been done and 4) God promises to one day get rid of evil and replace it with good. Of all these steps, step 3 is the most flexible. In some cases it seems to be missing (in these cases God is being patient and forgiving). In other cases, God asks the person to make a sacrifice before forgiving the sin. Very rarely, God refuses to forgive the sin and punishes the person for what they have done. As I said above that last option almost always happens after God has already shown an incredible amount of patience and forgiveness.

When people question God's justice they concentrate on steps 2 and 3. They question why God regards certain actions as evil; they question whether or not the people who committed evil were truly responsible for their actions; they question the methods God uses to punish people; they question God's decision to forgive in some cases and not in other cases.

But the claim that God is just does not depend primarily on steps 2 and 3. The books of Ecclesiastes and Job openly acknowledge that how God punishes evil, or fails to punish evil, can seem very unjust at times. Instead, the claim that God is just depends on steps 1 and 4. God is just because in the beginning he made everything good and in the end he will make everything good again. Moreover he has promised us that we will be included in that future where everything is restored, even though we sometimes do evil. That is why I can say with confidence that God is, indeed, just.

This was a bit of a dense post. If there's something you don't agree with, or something that doesn't make sense, feel free to post it in the comments. I look forward to reading them. Thank you.

* In the preface, Dawkins was responding to critics who complained that his writing was too shrill. The above sentence was the example most often given. Dawkins wrote, "It is not for me to say whether I succeeded, but my intention was closer to robust but humorous broadside than shrill polemic." I will say that I think the sentence failed to be humorous, if only because the idea is so unoriginal. As for the broadside, I think it missed its mark. Most of the shots are wildly off course, as I have already shown.

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